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A 3.3 Million-Year-Old Toddler
Ethan Zuckerman, 5 Jun 07

Zeray Alemseged is an Ethiopian paleontologist who claims responsibility for an amazing discovery: the world’s oldest child skeleton. In northeastern Ethiopia, he’s discovered a skeleton of a three year old girl which is 3.3 million years old. The skeleton, called Selam, is a member of the species Australopithicus.

The fossil he discovered comes from an enormously remote part of the country - driving from Addis Ababa, it took 27 hours to drive the first 400km, and four hours to do the last few kilometers. It’s an area rich in history - stone tools dating from 2.6 million years ago, flutes from 35,0000 years ago, and gorgeous beads from 75,000 years ago. When he arrived at the dig site, he was the first human to drive a car to the spot. Photos show us an incredibly remote, harsh desert - he reminds us that this land had very different carrying capacity in the past: “It is an extinct game part, where our ancestors weren’t especially successful” in hunting large mammals like elephants.

Selam’s skeleton was encased in a sandstone block, because she was buried by the river. Alemseged speaks about the sense of wonder and responsibility of holding this block in a terrifically remote part of the world. It took five years to remove the skeleton from the block - a second birth, he says.

There’s good visual evidence that Selam is human - her skeleton indicates upright walking, and the flat forehead is more similar to humans that chimpanzees. He was able to determine sex by analyzing the teeth - because of sexual dimorphism, teeth are smaller in female than in males - her canines were so small that, even though they were baby teeth, he feels confident that she was female.

One remarkable feature about Selam is a hyoid bone - this is a bone that supports the back of the tongue and is critical to speech. This bone in Selam looks very apelike - he believes that her cries for her mother would have sounded very chimp-like. This apelike feature found in a human skeleton is a profound reminder of our anthropological and evolutionary heritage.

Alemseged closes by urging us to have a positive African attitude towards Africa, urging Africans to “walk upright” to the future and to take charge of their heritage as the birthplace of humanity.

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The title says "billion" when it should say "million"...

A very cool discovery.

Posted by: Kelly Clowers on 5 Jun 07



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