The earliest known skull of Homo Erectus has been uncovered in the Drimolen caves north of Johannesburg. An international team of researchers, including geologists from the University of Cape Town (UCT), reconstructed more than 150 fragments to form the skull, called DNH134.
Researchers involved estimate that the skull is about 2 million years old. This proves that humans’ first ancestors were around about 200 000 years earlier than they were previously believed to be. The findings were published today [3 April, 2020] in Science.
“This is a very exciting discovery. We have struggled for decades to date the South African fossils. But now we have a range of suitable techniques, and it’s possible to push back the first appearance of our earliest ancestors in the Cradle,” said Dr Robyn Pickering, the Director of the Human Evolution Research Institute at UCT.
UCT News reports that the reconstructed skull is said to have belonged to a child aged 2 or 3, according to lead author Professor Andy Herries of La Trobe University’s Department of Archaeology and History in Australia.
The recent finding is interesting not only because it shows that our ancestors were around earlier than we previously thought, but also because it suggests that the Australopithecus species, A sediba may not have been the direct ancestor of H. erectus, and therefore of us. This is because the estimated age of the newly found fossil suggests that it shared the terrain with two other types of humans including the Paranthropus species and Australopithecus genera.
Dr Tara Edwards, a UCT postdoctoral researcher who was part of the research team explained how they dated the skull. “By looking at small pieces of cave rock, also known as speleothem, under the microscope, we can tell that the layers we are dating are pristine and we can trust the ages they produce,” she said to UCT News.
The recently published research is important for a variety of reasons. “Not only does the research illustrate the importance of South Africa in the human story, but this project is the first major breakthrough in hominin research with a female, South African director,” said Co-director of the Drimolen excavation project, University of Johannesburg PhD student Stephanie Baker to UCT News.
Image: Twitter / UCT Research