Discovery of a two-million-year-old fossil vertebrae

The discovery of a two-million-year-old fossil vertebrae from an extinct species of ancient human relative was announced today, 23 November 2021 in the open access journal, e-Life. Two University of Johannesburg (UJ) Faculty of Health Sciences members are part of an international team of 17 who co-authored the journal.

The fossils were discovered in 2015 during excavations of a mining trackway running next to the site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, just Northwest of Johannesburg.

Malapa is the site where University of the Witwatersrand’s Professor Lee Berger discovered the first remains of a new species of ancient human relative named Australopithecus sediba, in 2008.

The discovery established that like humans, sediba had only five lumbar vertebrae and “walked like a human, but climbed like an ape”.

The new lower back fossils are the “missing link” that settles a decades old debate proving early hominins used their upper limbs to climb like apes, and their lower limbs to walk like humans. UJ’s Associate Professor (Human Anatomy) in the Department of Human Anatomy and Physiology, Shahed Nalla and Head of Department of Chiropractic Dr Christopher Yelverton are co-authors of the journal.

Speaking about the e-Life journal article UJ Associate Professor Shahed Nalla said his study was focused on the costal (rib) elements associated with the named extinct species of Australopithecus sediba, comprising a juvenile (MH1) skeleton and an adult female (MH2) skeleton, which allowed for the morphology of the thorax to be determined as highlighted in the 2013 journal article published in the journal, Science.

“I have subsequently been a researcher with the international group of scientists studying the Malapa (and the Homo naledi fossils) by further studying related anatomical structures and regions. These fossil discoveries form the largest collections of hominin fossils and have pegged the importance of the Cradle of Humankind in the story of human evolution.  These discoveries have also opened up the field of palaeontology for greater involvement by specifically South African students and scientists.”

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