- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

From combined dispatches

NEW YORK — Scientists have discovered a remarkably complete skeleton of a 3-year-old female from the ape-man species represented by “Lucy.”

The discovery could fuel a debate about whether this species, which walked upright, also climbed and moved through trees easily like an ape.

The remains are 3.3 million years old, making them the oldest known skeleton of such a youthful human ancestor.

“It’s pretty unbelievable” to find such a complete fossil from that long ago, scientist Fred Spoor said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime find.”

Mr. Spoor, professor of evolutionary anatomy at University College London, describes the fossil in today’s issue of the journal Nature with Zeresenay Alemseged of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and other scientists.

The skeleton was discovered in 2000 in northeastern Ethiopia. Scientists have spent five years removing the bones from sandstone, and the job will take years more to complete.

Judging by how well it was preserved, the skeleton may have come from a body that was quickly buried by sediment in a flood, the researchers said.

The skeleton has been nicknamed “Selam,” which means “peace” in several Ethiopian languages.

The creature was a member of Australopithecus afarensis, which lived in Africa between 4 million and 3 million years ago. The most famous afarensis is Lucy, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, which lived about 100,000 years after the newfound specimen.

Most scientists think afarensis stood upright and walked on two feet, but they argue about whether it had apelike agility in trees.

That climbing ability would require anatomical equipment such as long arms, and afarensis had arms that dangled down to just above the knees. The question is whether such features indicate climbing ability or just evolutionary baggage.

Mr. Spoor said that, so far, analysis of the new fossil hasn’t settled the argument but does seem to indicate some climbing ability.

Bernard Wood of George Washington University, who didn’t participate in the discovery, said the fossil provides strong evidence of climbing ability. But he also agreed that it won’t settle the debate among scientists, which he said “makes the Middle East look like a picnic.”

Overall, he wrote in a Nature commentary, the discovery provides “a veritable mine of information about a crucial stage in human evolutionary history.”

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