Make no bones about it: the theory of early man was wrong

12 August 2007
Posted by Chris Smith.

The discovery of two new fossils looks set to re-write the history of human origins. Existing theories suggest that the early hominid, Homo habilis, which first appeared about three million years ago, slowly morphed into the bigger-brained Homo erectus, which then turned into us, Homo sapiens. But now, working in northeast Kenya, UCL's Fred Spoor and his colleagues have uncovered two one and half million year old fossilised skulls that rubbish that theory and also provide us with new insights into the lives of our ancient ancestors. Morphological features prove that one of the new fossils is from a Homo habilis, the other a Homo erectus. The team used age of the sediments in which the fossils were found to date the specimens and were surprised to see that the more "modern" erectus remains, at 1.55 million years, were older than those of the Homo habilis, which clocked in at 1.44 million years. These dates mean that, contrary to the theory that one species spawned the next, both Homo habilis and Homo erectus must have been co-existing side by side in this same part of Africa for over half a million years. "Their co-existence makes it unlikely that Homo erectus evolved from Homo habilis," says Meave Leakey, one of the study co-authors. Instead it looks like both evolved independently between two and three million years ago, although from what remains an as-yet unsolved puzzle.

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