Researchers Unearth Skull of Human Ancestor ‘Cousin’


Researchers from Australia this week discovered a two-million-year-old skull in South Africa. The skull was a male Paranthropus robustus, a cousin species to Homo erectus. Homo erectus is thought to be the direct ancestors of modern humans.

The Australian researchers presumed that the two species lived around the same time. Paranthropus robustus, however, died out earlier than Homo erectus. The research team described the find as exiting and believed it would throw more light on human evolution.

Drimolen Archaeological Site

Most of the recent fossil records of Paranthropus robustus consist of just a single tooth here and there. But in 2018, researchers from Melbourne’s La Trobe University found skull fragments of the Paranthropus robustus. When researchers found the male skull, they realized it was closer to the female specimen discovered previously. The archaeologists made the discovery at the Drimolen archaeological site north of Johannesburg. The fragments were uncovered just meters away from the spot where a similarly aged Homo Erectus skull of a child was unearthed in 2015.

Researchers Reconstruct Skull

After the discovery of the fragment’s archeologists spent a few years piecing and analyzing the fossil. One Researcher Jesse Martin said analyzing the fossil pieces was like working with wet cardboard. He added that he even had to use plastic straws to suck the last traces of dirt off them. The scientists nevertheless worked tirelessly and reconstructed the skull from the hundreds of bones. They did this because they knew that it would mark the start of a very successful Paranthropus robustus lineage that existed in South Africa for millions of years.

The scientists believed the three hominins (human-like creatures) species lived in South Africa. The hominins would compete with each other while living together at the same time. Because of this, the discovery presented a rare example of microevolution within the human lineage. After analysis, the scientist’s had their findings published in the Nature, Ecology, and Evolution journal.

Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus

Paranthropus robustus had large teeth and small brains, unlike Homo erectus. Homo erectus had large brains and small teeth. As for the diet, Paranthropus robustus’s diet mainly involved eating tough plants like bark and tubers. Meanwhile, Homo erectus likely ate both plants and meat.

The researchers believed that through time Paranthropus robustus likely evolved to generate and withstand higher forces. The human ancestor probably needed to produce more force for biting and chewing food that was hard or mechanically challenging to process with their teeth and jaws.

It was possible that over the years, a wetter environment evolved. This wet and cold environment may have caused a shortage of food available for Homo erectus and Paranthropus robustus. Like other animals on earth, Paranthropus robustus adapted and evolved in accordance with the landscape and environment around. Climate change probably caused the evolution within the Paranthropus robustus.

Homo erectus and Paranthropus robustus have vast differences. These different features and aspects were necessary to adapt and succeed following the environmental changes around them. But while we were the lineage that won in the end, two million years ago, the fossil records suggest that Paranthropus robustus was much more common than Homo erectus on the landscape.



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