It’s been a big year for old bones. Archaeologists have unearthed a jawbone—with teeth—in Ethiopia that is believed to be the oldest remains ever found from early humans. The jawbone was found basically laying around in a pile of rubble, at a site used to mine fossil fuels. It belonged to the earliest specimen of Homo and dates back 2.8 million years. That, dear readers, is not a typo.
With each new discovery of ancient human remains, scientists are excited by the opportunity to claim their find as the oldest, the biggest, the greatest, and so on. This discovery, however, has its researchers feeling very confident. Brian Villmoare, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is positive that the jawbone is the earliest specimen of Homo, the human genus. “Oh, yeah, it definitely is,” he says. “We were looking for it—and by miraculous chance we happened to find it.”
Other recent discoveries are helping us put the history of humankind into perspective. Earlier this year, the story came to light of another jawbone found by Taiwanese fisherman, and that specimen (just 200,000 years old) provided evidence that a fourth type of ancient man existed. A partial cranium uncovered in the Middle East, the remains of a hominid who lived 55,000 years ago, suggested that Homo sapiens lived alongside Neanderthals in the region, and likely interbred with them as well.
The jawbone found in Ethiopia might be the evidence archaeologists have been looking for: the puzzle piece that marks the branching off of ancient hominids from the primate family tree. The jaw has some similar features to Australopithecus, of which the famous Lucy is the best known. However, it’s also markedly different. The bone is slimmer and smoother, and researchers recognize this reduction as evidence that the jawbone belonged not to the ape-like Australopithecus, but to an early Homo.
Villmoare’s report on the findings were published in Science.
Images via Kaye Reed and William Kimbel