Can you spell g-a-u-t-e-n-g-e-n-s-i-s?

May 28, 2010

It seems like barely a few weeks have gone by since the last public announcement about the discovery and identification of a new fossil human ancestor and here we are again, looking at a new face in the family line up.

Meet Homo gautengensis.

Recently we were “warned” that the discovery of several proto humans were about to hit the headlines. The first of these is now getting the limelight; a new member to the genus Homo no less.

Homo gautengensis lived in what is now South Africa. Gauteng refers to a province in that country, and a term in the local Sesotho language meaning ‘place of gold.’

 Photo courtesy of Darren Curnoe

The preliminary information available through public channels at the time of writing indicate that this new species of hominid, which  measured about three feet tall and weighed around 110 pounds, was capable of walking upright as well as moving around in the trees. They lived from about 2 million years ago to 600,000 years ago. According to the researchers involved in this discovery, Homo gautengensis predated Homo habilis, officially still listed as the oldest known tool making and using human. As you will see below, there are other researchers who claim that Homo habilis had a much greater time depth. This headline grabbing statement will, no doubt, generate an interesting discussion.

This may now change as more context information becomes available. According to Dr. Darren Curnoe thinks it is highly likely that these hominids ‘produced and used stone tools and may even have made fire.” The presence of burnt bones found in association with the human remains points to this alleged use and mastery of fire.

More information will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology. Until then, this seems to be the extent of what the general public knows. What is certainly interesting to note here is that, while the announcement is to be made soon, the skull fragments were found in 1976 in the famous Sterkfontein caves. According to a University of New South Wales publication,

“The surprise finding was based on a partial skull – known by its museum catalogue number Stw 53 – along with two other partial skulls, several jaws, teeth and other bones found at various times at Sterkfontein and other nearby caves.”

This is not the end of the story. As they say in late night commercials: “but wait there is more…”  What is the broader picture here? We all know that when it comes to the study of early human ancestors, hyperbole often abounds in press releases and subsequent newspaper articles. With that in mind, be prepared to read headlines in which the totally incorrect terminology of “missing link” will re-appear. There will also be claims that our understanding of human has been “severely shaken,”  as it was claimed in other cases, again and again. You get the picture.

Homo erectus
Creative Commons License Photo credit Thomas Roche

Aside from all this predictable hoopla, we do have a chronological range (2 million to 600,000 years ago) and a place (Gauteng province, South Africa). Who else was around during that timeframe? As it turns out, quite a few hominids were around during that time span, all members of the genus Homo. Homo rudolfensis lived in East Africa from 1.9 to 1.8 million years ago; Homo habilis lived in Eastern and Southern Africa from 2.4 to 1.4 million years ago; Homo erectus lived in Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa as well as parts of Asia; Homo heidelbergensis lived in Europe, and possibly Asia and Africa from 700,000 to 200,000 years ago.

It looks like the place was crowded. In a way it was, with many more species of hominids present on our planet, mainly Africa, than there are today. In another way, it was not; we should not conjure up images of all these ancient hominids bumping into each other and stepping aside to let the others pass as if it were a busy pedestrian crossing in downtown Tokyo. Chances are that most may not have seen other species, and, if they did, were they aware that these others were different?

The earliest accepted evidence of using and controlling fire dates back to 790,000 years ago, at a site in Israel. If this find is pegged closer to the 2 million years ago mark, this would move the marker of fire use back in time considerably. We are not yet at stage of the game yet to make that call.
I wonder what the next announcement will bring.

Stay tuned.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

2 responses to “Can you spell g-a-u-t-e-n-g-e-n-s-i-s?”

  1. James says:

    Homo used fire 1 million bc. We found evidence of this in South Africa in a large cave.

  2. Dirk Van Tuerenhout says:

    Hello James,

    Thank you for your comment. You are correct. Currently our understanding is that humans controlled fire as early as 1 million years ago. Please note that that particular information was published in a 2012 Nature article, two years after this blog post went up on our website. If nothing else, this insight shows the dynamic nature of our understanding of human achievements. Every year brings new discoveries, new answers, and more questions. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comment. – Dirk Van Tuerenhout.

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