Australopithecus remains have announced that one of the fossils had skin on. The six fossils discovered so far have been dated to 2 million years ago and belong to the species Australopithecus sediba, which combined features of both the original Australopithecus, the first erect hominin species, and of modern Homo species. The find is all the more fascinating because, in addition to this being possibly the oldest hominin skin ever discovered, the fossils contain traces of organic matter from the food these ancient human ancestors ate. The initial discovery was made by chance: the lead researcher’s son stumbled across a human fossil in the Malapa Reserve near Johannesburg, in 2008. Until then, science did not even know this species had existed. Since then, excavation works have expanded significantly, and the team has even built an on-site laboratory where they can examine their finds in a secure environment. So far, the site has yielded bones belonging to six individuals, including an almost complete skull. Based on the evidence, the researchers have established that representatives of the Australopithecus species were much shorter than modern humans, standing at some 1.30 metres, and with a correspondingly smaller frame. While they walked on two legs, they also had more curved fingers than later hominins, suggesting they were also skilled climbers. Yet the most striking feature, according to Lee Berger, the leader of the research team, is the Australopithecus seiba’s head, which was disproportionately small, with the brain about the size of a modern man’s fist. The skin remains found on the fossils could tell the scientists a lot about those hominins’ lifestyle, while the organic substances between the teeth of some of the fossils could reveal something about their diet. This would be possible due to the kind of rock in which the fossils were found, which, unlike other sorts of rock, is capable of preserving organic substances. Two million years ago the site used to be a cave in the ground, Berger told the Naked Scientists podcast. It later collapsed in on itself, creating conditions he compared to a pool filled with liquid concrete, in which the bones were then thrown and preserved. The team has no way of knowing how these proto-humans got into the cave but suggest it may have been a trap they didn’t notice or contained something that lured them in. The team expects to unearth more human remains from the ancient cave and in order to protect them from environmental factors, has actually built a whole laboratory on the site. This will most likely turn the place into a tourist attraction and already the scientists are allowing visitors to look at the excavation site. The endeavour was challenging because the place is part of a nature reserve but, says Berger, the team came up with a structure that organically fits in its surroundings. This has made this site a unique one, where tourists will be able to witness the ongoing work of the researchers as they further their insight into the nature of this species and possibly establish where exactly they stand in relation to modern humans. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Lee Berger]]>

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