It all began about 2 million years ago.
Southern Africa was experiencing the end of a long period of climate change during which the Great Rift Valley had formed, one of earth’s most central geological features. A period of intense drought was ending. There were a lot of earthquakes going on as earth’s gargantuan plates sought long-term resting places.
Around what is now Johannesburg the veld was full of life, despite the millennia of drought that had considerably reduced the area’s biomass. But that meant that everything that was left was very successful.
There were dozens of species of rodents and antelopes, thousands of birds, and many predators like the Saber-toothed tiger. And there were men, or almost men. At least 4 species of hominins, maybe more.
Two of those were Australopithecus sediba, a woman with her child or perhaps much younger brother. They were walking among the tall forests and over the occasional meadows looking for food. They weren’t hunters.
They were looking for tubers, fruits and seeds, a pantry of nourishment hard to find in the dry conditions in which they’d been born. So often they ate more than just the leaves of a bush: they ate the bark, too.
Virtually all their waking hours were spent searching for food and avoiding predation from the tiger .. and maybe from the other types of early man especially those who had developed incisors and were eating meat, likely an evolutionary response to diminishing food sources.
All the forms of hominin at the time were small and chimp-like. But what made these two different from other types was that the front of their small brains resembled ours. And their pelvis resembled ours. Our brains and our pelvis are two very distinctive parts of the anatomy of homo sapiens.
What these two creatures didn’t know, and all the other animals in their area didn’t know either, was that they were foraging over a huge underground cave. The area was in the final stages of forming what would later become earth’s greatest vein of gold and other precious minerals, a hundred million or more years of work.
So one final touch on this geological sculpture opened up the earth above them, and they and many other animals with them tumbled into the cave and were crushed to death. Even the feared saber–tooth tiger that might have been preying on them fell prey to the earth opening up below them both.
Then hardly a few days or weeks afterwards and reflecting the great climate changes occurring on earth at the time, there was a torrential thunderstorm, and huge rivers of water poured into the cave, pushing the two early man creatures, the tiger and many other animals together into a far underground pool that quickly solidified as rock.
The site of these two creatures and many of the animals with them was discovered more than a decade ago. Excavating the remaining bones from rock, however, is a very difficult process, so the fossil bones of the female were presented to science only two years ago.
Australopithecus sediba immediately became the star of early man studies. As more and more scientists got a look at the bones, it seemed reasonable that she might be a direct ancestor to us, something that few scientists have claimed of any of the ancient Australopithecine before.
The machine creates a perfect picture of just the fossil bone separate from the rock that cakes it. And then new 3D imaging technology creates a facsimile out of a plastic-like substance.
My narrative above, of course, is totally fictional. But what really is known of the creatures themselves is turning paleontology upside down. The results are stunning.
For years we’ve presumed that our larger pelvis was the result of having to birth a creature with a larger brain. But Au. sediba’s pelvis is relatively as large as ours, and its brain is only a third as big.
For years we’ve presumed that brain size (or more correctly the ratio of brain size to body size) determined the cognitive intelligence of the creature. But recently neuroscience has concluded cognitive intelligence is not so linked to the size of our brain as the specific formation of its frontal lobe. And guess what? Au. sediba’s frontal lobe is remarkably like ours, and remarkably unlike other early men we have in study.
And perhaps the most stunning discovery of all might be … skin. Fossil bones are not organic. When we say that this creature or that ate this or that, it’s a presumption from the fossil remains of seeds and plant casings that have turned to stone.
But the unique, fast way these creatures and all the life around them was encased in stone lends hope that real organic matter with DNA, such as skin, might be preserved!
There’s another stunning development. Unlike many American paleontologists who guard their science like their family heirlooms, the science being undertaken at the University of Witwatersrand is the most transparent paleontology ever undertaken.
The ongoing excavations will be video streamed in real time! The laboratory work, the fossil bones already completely recovered are wide open to virtually any scientist in the world to take a look at. This transparency is not simply revolutionary, it is incredibly refreshing and long overdue.
Compare this southern African science, for example, to American Tim White’s ten-year secrecy of the discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus.
The chief scientist and discover is an American, Lee Berger, who has been associated with the University of Witwatersrand for more than ten years. His wife, Jackie Smilg, is the person developing the scanning technology.
And with full backing of the government of South Africa, the Cradle of Humankind is becoming not only a major tourist attraction, but a scientific center.
For all of modern history, early man science has had its thoroughfare in the universities and museums of the western world. No longer. It’s back home!
What goes around comes around.