What was Australopithecine life like?

A large human family

“The group that unites all humans, the hominins, separated from the branch that today gave birth to chimpanzees and bonobos. Together with gorillas and Orangutans, we are all part of the family of hominids. Man does not descend from monkeys, we are all primates and we have a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, which are the living beings closest to us”, explains paleoanthropologist Antoine Balzeau, author of a A brief history of the origins of mankind (Tallandier editions, 2022).

The oldest known members of the bush of humanity date from 7 million years ago on the African continent dubbed for this reason “the cradle of humanity”. This is what we learned from the discovery of Toumaï in Chad in 2001. Over the centuries, several species of hominins have coexisted throughout the world. Among them are many species of Australopithecines, which lived between 4.4 and 1 million years ago.

Australopithecines already had complex childbirths, study finds

Taung’s skull before Lucy

The first to have discovered the remains ofaustralopithecus afarensis, it is the Australian anthropologist and paleontologist Raymond Dart. According to some researchers, it is this species which would be the origin of the other species of Australopithecines, and in particular of its robust representatives, the paranthropes.

In 1924, near Kimberley, South Africa, Dart unearthed a skull belonging to a child, nicknamed Taung. In the newspaper Nature the following year, he described a new type of hominin, Australopithecus. Thanks to the position of the hole discovered at the base of the skull which indicates the bipedal station, Dart concludes that this specimen could not move on 4 legs and was well adapted to bipedalism.

The star of this new group, you know his name well. It’s not Taung, it’s Lucy! It was unearthed on November 24, 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia, by an international team led by the American Donald Johanson and the French Maurice Taïeb and Yves Coppens.

Its name, it owes it to the Beatles. Indeed, on the evening of the discovery, as they meticulously clean the precious bones, the paleoanthropologists listen to the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds of the four boys in the wind. To the sound of rock’n’roll, Lucy is thus baptized by Westerners. The Ethiopians call it Dinqnesh, which means “You are wonderful”.

Characteristics and lifestyle of Australopithecines

What makes her wonderful is that her skeleton is 40% complete. Unheard of at the time! Fragments of 52 bones dating back 3.2 million years have been found. Lucy measures 1 meter 10 for 25 kilos. On average, australopithecines measure between 1.3 and 1.5 meters, but they can exceed 1m60. The cranial capacity of Australopithecines measures 450cm3 on average, that of the current chimpanzee.

Lucy’s long arms suggest she must have spent a lot of time clinging to tree branches. But other anatomical particularities, such as its short and flared pelvis indicate that it was totally adapted to a bipedal mode of locomotion, like all the representatives of the great human family.

Australopithecines lived in quite varied environments and could evolve in the humid forest as well as in the savannah. Their diet consisted of grasses, succulents, tubers, as evidenced by the thick enamel of their teeth. But they weren’t totally vegetarian and over time they ate more insects, rodents, birds and eggs. Australopithecines were omnivores and some made stone tools.

On the question of their hairiness, Antoine Balzeau tells us that this is a “question without scientific interest since the hypotheses are impossible to test. We, men today, do not have less hair than a chimpanzee and therefore certainly an Australopithecus, whether its hair was short or long”.

Lucy, ancestor of mankind, spent at least a third of the time in the trees

Australopithecines, do you want some here!

Taung and Lucy are not the only representatives of Australopithecines. Hundreds have been unearthed, like 3-year-old Selam. It was discovered in 2000 in Ethiopia, just four kilometers from where Lucy had been discovered 26 years earlier. Result: the press immediately presented her as “Lucy’s baby”, a nickname that is confusing because Selam is much older.

Today, specialists agree that Lucy is not our grandmother, but a distant aunt among others. Australopithecines were very varied, a dozen different species lived and rubbed shoulders with many other species attributed to the genus Homo from 2 million years ago.

“Thus, Australopithecines are indeed part of the larger human family, since their bodies were adapted to bipedalism. They were somewhat smaller than later humans, and most importantly, they had smaller legs and larger arms. species have spread to different regions of Africa over time, probably because these humans were quite subservient to their environment.The latest notable discovery is that the first known stone tools date from their time, demonstrating unexpected skills to these humans old”, concludes Antoine Balzeau.

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