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Photo National Museum of Kenya
New Hominid Species Kenyathropus Platyops - 3.5 million years old

Dramatic Breakthrough - New Hominid Discovery Rewrites Human Evolution History

March 22, 2001 - A complete skull found in Kenya, dated at 3.5 million years old, is believed to represent a new genus of hominin, or early human. The hominin, named Kenyathropus platyops, would have lived at the time of Australopithicus afarensis, made famous by the "Lucy" skeleton. The skull, found in several pieces, was discovered by team member Justus Erus on an expedition led by Meave and Louise Leakey and sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

Since the early 1980's, many scientists have believed that there was a single common human ancestor, which gave rise to successive species within the past 3 million years. This ancestral species, Australopithecus afarensis, is best known from the partial skeleton discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and popularly known as "Lucy". However, the newly discovered Kenyan fossils, which include jaws and teeth in addition to a skull, are from the same time interval as Australopithecus afarensis, but are remarkably different. For example, the new Kenyanthropus skull has a much flatter face than Australopithecus. Hence, Meave Leakey says Kenyanthropus shows persuasively that at least two lineages existed as far back as 3.5 million years; the early stages of human evolution are more complex than we previously thought."

Of particular scientific interest amongst the new finds is the reasonably complete skull which was discovered by research assistant Justus Erus who was working with Meave and Louise Leakey near the Lomekwi River, in northern Kenya. In addition to a flat face, the skull of Kenyanthropus has particularly small molar teeth. Both tooth size and face shape relate to the way a species chews its food.
Therefore, the differences between Kenyanthropus and Australopithecus probably show that they had different diets and could have existed side by side without direct competition for food resources.

The team working on the new finds included Christopher Kiarie who carried out the painstaking laboratory preparation of the fossils, Frank Brown and Patrick Gathogo (University of Utah) who studied the earth layers in which the fossils were found, and Ian McDougall (Australian National University) who did the isotopic dating of these layers. The analysis of the fossils has been made by paleontologists Fred Spoor (University College London), and Meave and Louise Leakey.

The National Geographic Society has sponsored Kenyan palaeontological field work by the National Museums of Kenya in the Lake Turkana basin since 1968. In addition, the geological studies for these finds were supported by the Leakey Foundation (USA) and the isotopic dating was supported by the Australian National University.


The Leakey Foundation

Nature Article - March 22, 2001