Whenever we find a new hominid, it’s a big deal. Understanding our past and what we evolved from lets us better understand our ancient history and the mechanism of evolution. And we’ve now discovered a completely new human ancestor, which is changing how we view our past completely.
It doesn’t often come up in intro to anthropology courses, but there’s been passionate debate among anthropologists and archaeologists for years about whether or not there was only one hominid humanity descended from, with the occasional offshoot like Neanderthals, or whether there were competing hominids we beat out to take over the planet. The main issue with the “competing hominids” theory is, well, we hadn’t found any of the competing hominids, although we’d recently found some compelling evidence they existed.
All that has officially changed. It’s recently been announced that a new contemporary of our supposed ancestors, Australopithecus deyiremeda, has been found. This isn’t some publicity grab, either; the jaw fossils this discovery is based on were found in 2011, and the research team spent four years studying them and ruling out every other possible explanation. Also interesting is that this fossil turned up just 22 miles from where we’ve found the fossils of the heretofore only known possible human ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis.
This raises a whole host of questions, not the least of which is, “Are we descended from either of these species?” But how did they interact? Were the two species peaceful? Did they fight? Did one kill off the other? Did they compete for similar resources, or did their diets vary enough that they could essentially coexist? We have no answers, but, needless to say, anthropologists are going to keep digging.