Ancient Skeleton Reveals Ruggedly Built, Tree-Climbing Human Ancestor

First Posted: Dec 06, 2013 08:32 AM EST

Archaeologists have uncovered some old bones that may tell us a bit more about our own ancient ancestors. They've unearthed a partial skeleton that reveals our ancestors were muscular creatures with a gorilla-like upper body that were adaptive to their environment.

The skeleton includes arm, hand, leg and foot fragments that belong to Paranthropus boisei. Dating to about 1.34 million years ago, these remains were discovered in Tanzania.

"This is the first time we've found bones that suggest that this creature was more ruggedly built--combining terrestrial bipedal locomotion and some arboreal behaviors--than we previously thought," said Charles Musiba, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It seems to have more well-formed forearm muscles that were used for climbing, fine-manipulation and all sorts of behavior."

P. boisei was a long-lived species of archaic hominin that first evolved in East Africa about 2.3 million years ago. Yet researchers have uncovered few remains of this species; this led them to assume that P. boisei was similar to more ancient species of the genus Australopithecus. The new findings, though, suggest otherwise. While P. boisei is known for its massive jaws and cranium, it also turns out that it had a robust frame, powerful forearms and a powerful upper body.

"It's a different branch on our ancestry tree," said Musiba in a news release. "It came later than the other hominins, so the question now is 'what happened to it?' We're going to do more work on biomechanics and see what else this creature was doing. We know it was very strong. It's unprecedented to find out how strong this individual was. The stronger you are the more adaptive you are."

The creature probably stood at around 3.5 to 4.5 feet tall. In addition, the findings reveal a bit more about human evolution itself. The fact that P. boisei was robust leads to further questions as to how it went extinct in the first place.

"The more we are finding of these fossils, the more we are learning about the history of these species," said Musiba in a news release.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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