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Paleontologists excavating in the Drimolen field, northwest of Johannesburg, in South Africa, it took a while to assemble the numerous skull fragments they found.
They didn't even imagine that could belong to a hominid.
It was about the first remains found in South Africa of aHomo erectus, the first human species to walk fully upright and the first to leave Africa about 1.8 million years ago. The remains ofskull were also unusual because they belonged to achild of two or three years, whose bones are usually very fragile at that age.
Along with these fossils, in the same stratigraphic layers of the South African deposit, the scientists also found remains of Paranthropus, a primitive species of bipedal hominin that became extinct more than a million years ago.
Once the species to which the fossils belonged had been described, their age had to be determined.
Thanks to state-of-the-art dating techniques - including paleomagnetic, electron spin resonance, uranium-lead and faunal dating - the team, led by La Trobe University in Australia and the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, achieved a date very precise: makes between2.04 and 1.95 million years.
The study, published now in the magazineScience, confirms, in this way, the discovery of the remains ofHomo erectus older.
This species could live between200,000 and 150,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to the remains found in the Dmanisi oilfield, Georgia, dated at 1.8 million years.
“Our finding allows us to understand how this first, more human species spread over a large part of the world and was successful for so long. The question we have to answer now is where did it originate, "he explains. Andy herries, Head of the Department of Archeology and History at the Australian University and lead author of the work.
Three contemporary species
The new dating of Homo erectus andParanthropus suggests that they were contemporaries of another hominin: theAustralopithecus, which until now was believed to be extinct before the appearance in South Africa of the other two species.
The region where the deposit is located could reflect a transition period in southern Africa.
As endemic species such asAustralopithecus, the new migrants became extinct,Homo YParanthropus, settled in their new South African environment, the authors suggest.
"Although the site was formed in a fairly short period of time, we cannot really demonstrate that the different species encountered each other in the landscape, despite the high resolution of dating," says the expert, who points out that the remains fromHomo erectus YParanthropus and the bone tools found could be deposited with a difference of seasons or years.
“Homo erectus YParanthropus they had very different strategies in terms of diet, so it is possible that they could have lived in the same landscape at the same time, but exploiting different niches, ”Herries emphasizes.
Researchers stillto confirm if these species interacted or competed in the landscape, and if they did, how was that contact.
Thechanging weather it could also influence the survival of the different species.
WhileParanthropus YAustralopithecus evolved in hot and humid climates and got used to them, theHomo erectus They were able to cover long distances, which gave them an advantage when the climate began to change from hot and humid to cold and dry in South Africa.
This caused the mass of trees to decrease giving way to grasses. Eventually, the forests were replaced by the African savanna grasslands that we know today.
“The study shows the great complexity of human evolution. It is not a question of some species becoming extinct and others replacing them, or simply one species evolving into another. It's a complex story that spans time and space, ”says Herries.
According to the expert, species can become extinct in one part of the globe, but exist for much longer periods in other regions if they are successful and do not compete directly with other hominids.
An example of this is the evidence found in Indonesia that the lastHomo erectus lived up to 117,000 years ago.
A.I.R. Herries et al. "Contemporaneity ofAustralopithecus, Paranthropus, and earlyHomo erectus in S. Africa "Science, April 2, 2020.