An Australopithecus sediba silhouette showing the newly-found vertebrae along with other skeletal remains from the species
The recovery of new fossil lumbar, or lower back, vertebrae of a single individual of the hominin species Australopithecus sediba, and portions of other vertebrae of the same female from Malapa, South Africa, together with previously discovered vertebrae from one of the most complete lower backs ever discovered in the early hominid record give insight into how this ancient human relative walked and climbed.
Researchers from New York University, the University of Johannesburg (UJ), the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and 14 other institutions nicknamed the female skeleton “Issa", meaning protector in Swahili. The discovery also established that, like humans, Australopithecus sediba had only five lumbar vertebrae.
The newly discovered two-million-year-old fossil vertebrae from the lower back settled the decades-old debate by proving that early hominins used their upper limbs to climb like apes and their lower limbs to walk like humans.
The international team of scientists revealed the discovery of two-million-year-old fossil vertebrae from an extinct species of ancient human relative, or hominin, in research published in the open access journal e-Life on November 23.
“The lumbar region is critical to understanding the nature of bipedalism in our earliest ancestors, and to understanding how well adapted they were to walking on two legs,” says New York University, Wits and lead author on the paper Professor Scott Williams.
“Associated series of lumbar vertebrae are extraordinarily rare in the hominin fossil record, with only three comparable lower spines being known from the whole of the early African record.”
Previous studies of the incomplete lower spine by authors not involved in the present study hypothesised that A. sediba would have had a relatively straight spine, without the curvature, or lordosis, typically seen in modern humans.
Lordosis is the inward curve of the lumbar spine and is typically used to demonstrate strong adaptations to bipedalism. They hypothesised Issa’s spine was more like that of the extinct species Neandertals, Homo neanderthalensis, and other, more primitive species of ancient hominins older than two-million years.
However, with the more complete spine, and excellent preservation of the fossils, the present study found the lordosis of A. sediba was in fact more extreme than any other australopithecines yet discovered, and the amount of curvature of the spine observed was only exceeded by that seen in the spine of the 1.6-million-year-old Turkana boy (Homo erectus) from Kenya, and some modern humans.
“While the presence of lordosis and other features of the spine represent clear adaptations to walking on two legs, there are other features, such as the large and upward oriented transverse processes, that suggest powerful trunk musculature, perhaps for arboreal behaviours,” says Stony Brook University and an author on the study Professor Gabrielle Russo.
Strong upward oriented transverse spines are typically indicative of powerful trunk muscles, as observed in apes. UJ and Wits Professor Shahed Nalla, an expert on ribs and a researcher on the present study says that, when combined with other parts of torso anatomy, this indicates that A. sediba retained clear adaptations to climbing.
Previous studies of this ancient species have highlighted the mixed adaptations across the skeleton in A. sediba that have indicated its transitional nature between walking like a human and climbing adaptations. These include features studied in the upper limbs, pelvis and lower limbs.
“The spine ties this all together,” says Texas A&M Professor Cody Prang, who studies how ancient hominins walked and climbed.
“In what manner these combinations of traits persisted in our ancient ancestors, including potential adaptations to both walking on the ground on two legs and climbing trees effectively, is perhaps one of the major outstanding questions in human origins.”
The study concludes that A. sediba is a transitional form of ancient human relative and its spine is clearly intermediate in shape between those of modern humans and Neandertals, and great apes.
“Issa walked somewhat like a human but could climb like an ape,” says Wits, an author on the study and leader of the Malapa project Professor Lee Berger.
The discovery of the new specimens means that Issa now becomes one of only two early hominin skeletons to preserve both a relatively complete lower spine and dentition from the same individual, allowing certainty as to what species the spine belongs to.
“While Issa was already one of the most complete skeletons of an ancient hominin ever discovered, these vertebrae practically complete the lower back and make Issa’s lumbar region a contender for not only the best-preserved hominin lower back ever discovered, but also probably the best-preserved,” says Berger.
This combination of completeness and preservation gave the team an unprecedented look at the anatomy of the lower back of the species, he adds.
The fossil vertebrae were discovered in 2015 during excavations of a mining trackway running next to the site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, north-west of Johannesburg. Fossils from the site have been dated to about two-million years before present. The vertebrae described in the present study were recovered in a consolidated concrete-like rock, known as breccia, in near articulation.
Rather than risking damaging the fossils, they were prepared virtually after scanning with a micro-computed tomography scanner at Wits, removing the risk of damaging the closely positioned, delicate bones during manual preparation.
Once virtually prepared, the vertebrae were reunited with fossils recovered during earlier work at the site and found to articulate perfectly with the spine of the fossil skeleton, part of the original Type specimens of Australopithecus sediba first discovered in 2008 by Berger and his son Matthew Berger and first described in 2010.
“These fossil discoveries form the largest collections of hominin fossils and have pegged the importance of the Cradle of Humankind in the story of human evolution. I believe this breakthrough has also opened up the field of palaeontology for greater involvement by specifically South African students and scientists,” says Nalla.
Nalla contributed to the taxonomy of Homo Naledi, as well as the analysis of the thoracic elements associated with the fossil find.