What’s the News: It turns out that the strong-jawed, big-toothed human relative colloquially known as “Nutcracker man” may never have tasted a nut. In a finding that questions traditional ideas of early hominid diet, researchers discovered that Paranthropus boisei, a hominid living in east Africa between 2.3 and 1.2 million years ago, mostly fed on grasses and sedges. “Frankly, we didn’t expect to find the primate equivalent of a cow dangling from a remote twig of our family tree,” researcher Matt Sponheimer told MSNBC. Read More
Last week, Lee Berger unveiled for the world the stunningly intact fossil finds (that his 9-year-old son actually made while with his dad in South Africa) from what he is calling a new hominid species, Australopithecus sediba. Yesterday, he announced another surprise: Berger says that brain scans just finished in France show that insects that might have feasted on the person after death, and even possibly a piece of the hominid’s brain, may be preserved inside the recovered skull.
Experts at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France have been analyzing the find. The ESRF uses a technique known as micro-tomography to assemble its images. This involves taking a series of a high-contrast, high-resolution X-ray radiographs of the target fossil in rotation to build up a 3D representation [BBC News]. The scientists were trying to study the teeth; the skull comes from a young boy, Berger says, and they hoped tooth analysis could help them pin down his exact age at death. But the 3-D representation revealed these other unexpected finds, including a low-density cavity in the skull that could—could—represent a brain remnant.
When I was 9 years old I desperately wanted to be a paleontologist, but sadly, daydreams of unearthing dinosaurs led to no significant fossil finds in my backyard. So I must confess unending respect for Matthew Berger, who, at age 9, quite by accident made a stunning scientific find. In the journal Science this week, Matthew’s father paleoanthropologist Lee Berger describes the fossils of a brand-new hominid species that they turned up in South Africa: Australopithecus sediba, which dates back to between 1.78 and 1.95 million years and could offer new hints about that era of human evolution.
Matthew was chasing his dog near a site where his father had long hunted for fossils when he tripped over the find. The bones belong to a pre-teenage boy and a woman estimated to be in her late 20s or early 30s; the individuals died at about the same time, and before their remains had fully decomposed, they were entombed in an avalanche of sediment and nearly perfectly preserved deep in the Malapa cave north of Johannesburg, South Africa [TIME]. As a result, Lee Berger says, the bones are in an astonishing state for their nearly 2-million-year age.