Thursday, March 8, 2012

Early names for “Early Man”

In the evolution chart of Homo sapiens, Australopithecines (hominids that lived about two to five million years ago) have their place before Homo erectus (about 200,000 to 2 million years ago, see Java Man) and “Neanderthal Man”  (about 45,000 to 200,000 years ago).  On the path from ape to man, Australopithecines were the first primates that walked in a bipedal manner broadly similar to that of  “Modern Man,”  as concluded from the scant fossil record [1]. Therefore, Australopithecines are often nicknamed “Early Man.”

The first Australopithecine fossils were discovered in 1924 near Taungs in South Africa: Raymond Dart (1893-1988) described the species and named it Australopithecus africanus, which means southern ape of Africa [2-4]. Ten years later the Scottish physician and paleontologist Robert Broom uncovered further Australopithecus fossils. Additional discoveries followed. Anthropologist H. L. Shapiro reports how all these exciting discoveries in Africa were enthusiastically announced to the scientific world by addressing Early Man with a parade of names: “Paranthropus robustus, Paranthropus crassidens, Plesianthropus transvaalensis, Australopithecus prometheus and Telanthropus capensisis” [4].  The reader will recognize references to African localities, mythology and anatomical characteristics in these names.

Shapiro writes how more names were added, for example Zinjanthropus boisei, known as “Zinj,” discovered in 1959 at Olduvai Gorge, Tanganyika, by members of the “Leakey dynasty.” But careful comparison of all  those variant types resulted in the recognition of mainly two Australopithecine species, differing by dental features and therefore by their diet: A. africanus and A. robustus [4]. Although they may have walked and chewed like humans today, they had much smaller brains, comparable to those of modern apes: early men and women probably didn't think about their names! 

Keywords: Hominidae, paleontology, anthropology, anatomy, history, nomenclature, systematics.

References and more to explore
[1] Edward O. Wilson: The Diversity of Life. W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 1999; page 52.
[2] Australopithecus africanus > History of Discovery [].
[3] Chrissy Duhn: Raymond Dart [].
[4] H. L. Shapiro: Peking Man. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974 (paperback edition); pp. 113-116.

1 comment:

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