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Girl, 3.3 million years old, offers clues

Skeleton suggests `Lucy's baby' was ape-like hybrid

Zeresenay Alemseged, leader of an international research team, held the skull of a hominid child who died 3.3 million years ago. The discovery in an Ethiopian desert represents one of the most complete ancient individuals ever recovered and the oldest.
Zeresenay Alemseged, leader of an international research team, held the skull of a hominid child who died 3.3 million years ago. The discovery in an Ethiopian desert represents one of the most complete ancient individuals ever recovered and the oldest. (Lealisa Westerhoff/ AFP/ Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Fossil hunters have unearthed the fossil skeleton of a toddler who died 3.3 million years ago, marking the first time scientists have discovered the nearly complete remains of a child of an ancient human ancestor.

The child, a girl who was about 3 years old when she perished in what may have been a flash flood, provides an unprecedented window into human evolution, in part because she belongs to the same species as ``Lucy," one of the most famous hominid specimens in paleontology, specialists said.

That prompted some scientists to refer to the new skeleton as ``Lucy's baby," even though they estimate she lived some 150,000 years earlier. The researchers who discovered her in an Ethiopian desert named her Selam, which means peace in Ethiopian.

Although scientists have found individual bones and bone fragments of children from this and other species of human predecessors as well as a few skeletons, the discovery represents one of the most complete individuals ever recovered and by far the oldest. Bones of infants are so small and soft that few survive.

``I'm very excited," said Zeresenay Alemseged of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, who led the international team, which reported the find in today's issue of the journal Nature. ``This is a unique discovery in the history of paleoanthropology."

Independent specialists agreed, saying the skeleton's discovery would probably lead to important insights into human evolutionary history.

``This is a really important fossil," said Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley. ``It's very unusual to find something this young, this complete."

Although scientists are still painstakingly extracting the fossilized bones from stone, they have already begun making striking discoveries, including a tiny throat structure that suggests that if the 1 1/2-foot- tall toddler cried out for its mother, her wails probably sounded more like a chimp than a human baby.

``If you imagine how this child would have sounded if it was crying out for its mother, its cry would appeal more to chimp ears than to human ears," said Fred Spoor of University College in London, who is helping the study of the remains.

The remains also confirm how much of a hybrid these creatures were between humans and apes. They had legs like humans that enabled them to walk upright , but they had shoulders like gorillas that may have also enabled them to climb trees; their teeth seem to have grown quickly, like chimps' teeth, but their brains may have matured more slowly, like humans.

``This confirms the idea that human evolution was not some straight line going from ape to human," said Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution. ``The more we discover, the more we realize that different parts evolve at different times, and some of these experiments of early evolution had a combination of human-like and ape-like features."

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