Nine-Year-Old May Have Discovered New Human Ancestor

>Researchers in South Africa have discovered a new hominid species that may well be a human ancestor. The species had very long legs, which scientists suspect were helpful for running from predators and searching for food, but also apelike arms it used to climb trees.

Its small teeth and human-like face resemble the Homo genus, which includes modern-day humans, but its small brain is more similar to the Australopithecus genus, which predated the Homo group. Scientists have named the nearly two-million-year-old species Australopithecus sediba and are debating whether it is an ancestor to man.

Other than the massive evolutionary advance this discovery signifies, perhaps the most interesting part of the story is how the fossils were found. Lee Berger, an American paleoanthropologist working for a South African university, had been excavating a World Heritage site north of Johannesburg for nearly twenty years by the time he turned to a layperson's device: Google Earth. He used the mapping tool to pan over the landscape -- aptly called the Cradle of Humankind, one of the New York Times' better datelines -- in search of shadows that might indicate underground caves.

In August of 2008, he was excavating one such cave when his nine-year-old son called out from a nearby hill where he'd been playing. Berger walked over to find his son brandishing the clavicle of a hominid boy roughly his age. Seven months later Berger and his colleagues had located the boy's skull, which was eerily preserved. They have since found three other hominid skeletons and suspect that more lie in wait.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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