Our family tree may have sprouted some long-lost branches going back nearly two million years. A famous paleontology family has found fossils that they think confirm their theory that there are two additional pre-human species besides the one that eventually led to modern humans.
A team led by Meave Leakey, daughter-in-law of famed scientist Louis Leakey, found facial bones from one creature and jawbones from two others in Kenya. That led the researchers to conclude that man’s early ancestor had plenty of human-like company from other species.
These would not be Homo erectus, believed to be our direct ancestor. They would be more like very distant cousins, who when you go back even longer in time, shared an ancient common ancestor, one scientist said.
But other experts in human evolution are not convinced by what they say is a leap to large conclusions based on limited evidence.
It is the continuation of a long-running squabble in anthropology about the earliest members of our own genus, or class, called Homo — an increasingly messy family history. And much of it stems from a controversial discovery that the Leakeys made 40 years ago.
In their new findings, the Leakey team says that none of their newest fossil discoveries match erectus, so they had to be from another flat-faced relatively large species with big teeth.
The new specimens have “a really distinct profile” and thus they are “something very different,” said Meave Leakey, describing the study published online Wednesday in Nature….
the Leakeys believe there were three living Homo species between 1.8 million and 2 million years ago. They would be Homo erectus, the 1470 species, and a third branch.
“Anyway you cut it, there are three species,” study co-author Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University. “One of them is named erectus, and that, ultimately, in our opinion is going to lead to us.”
Both of the species that Meave Leakey said existed back then went extinct more than a million years ago in evolutionary dead-ends. “Human evolution is clearly not the straight line that it once was,” Spoor said.
The three different species could have been living at the same time at the same place, but probably didn’t interact much, he said. Still, he said, East Africa nearly 2 million years ago “was quite a crowded place.”