Early human ancestors

Online Biology Dictionary

picture of Australopithecus afarensis One of the best-known australopithecines, Australopithecus afarensis - head model - adult male - on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. - 2012-05-17 (Image: Tim Evanson).


Picture comparing an ape, australopithecine, and modern human side by side Australopithecine (center), ape (left), and modern human (left) compared side by side. Image: Wits University.

Picture of an australopithecine skeleton, that of Lucy The famous "Lucy" (Australopithecus afarensis) Image: Andrew Cleveland.

teeth of paranthropus boisei Two palates showing the large size of the teeth of Paranthropus boisei (left), a robust australopithecine popularly known as Nutcracker Man. The much smaller teeth of a modern human are shown at right. Image: Melissa Lutz Blouin, University of Arkansas.

paranthropus boisei skull Paranthropus boisei. Image: The National Museums of Kenya.

Australopithecines were early hominids.

Two general types are recognized, those with lighter (gracile) bone structure, assigned to the genus Australopithecus, and those with a sturdier (robust) build, assigned to the genus Paranthropus (the members of Paranthropus are sometimes treated as also belonging Australopithecus). Known fossils attributed to these forms range from about 1.2 to 4.2 million years in age. Most experts say the members of Ardipithecus and Kenyanthropus are also australopithecines. If this latter view is correct, then the earliest known fossils belonging to creatures of this type would date to 5.8 mya (Ardipithecus kadabba).

Although australopithecine — a name coined by Raymond Dart who discovered the first specimen (the Taung Child) — means southern ape, these creatures were not simply apes because they were bipedal. Their arms were also shorter in proportion to their height than are those of an ape (but not so short as are a human's)

The robust forms had larger teeth and a stouter skull structure than gracile types. In general, the features that distinguish the robust skull are associated with a strong chewing apparatus — larger teeth, a heavier jaw, and a sagittal crest allowing a large attachment surface for the jaw muscles. With respect to these features, the robust forms tended toward the morphology of modern gorillas.

There is some doubt as to whether these creatures are actually ancestral to modern humans since Homo habilis and Homo erectus, which are both generally accepted as human ancestors, coexisted with them for more than a million years (see human evolution timeline). That is, instead of being our ancestors, australopithecines might have merely been close relatives of the forms that gave rise to modern humans.

An additional fly in the ointment has been the recent discovery of Australopithecus sediba, which existed much more recently than any other member of the genus Australopithecus previously known. Perhaps these creatures were merely a sideline that existed for millions of years and then went extinct.

Next page >>

Pronunciation: "AW-strə-lō-PITH-ə-seenz"

Chart >>

Timeline >>

Biology Dictionary >>

Homo rhodesiensis >>

Homo rudolfensis >>

Homo erectus >>

Homo ergaster >>

Homo habilis >>

Homo cepranensis >>

Homo heidelbergensis >>

Homo georgicus>>

Homo floresiensis >>

Homo neanderthalensis>>

Kenyanthropus platyops >>

Paranthropus aethiopicus >>

Paranthropus boisei >>

Paranthropus robustus >>

Orrorin tugenensis >>

Ardipithecus ramidus >>

Australopithecus africanus >>

Australopithecus anamensis >>

Australopithecus bahrelghazali >>

Australopithecus garhi >>

Australopithecus sediba >>

Sahelanthropus tchadensis >>

Most shared on

Human Origins: Are we hybrids?

On the Origins of New Forms of Life

Mammalian Hybrids

Cat-rabbit Hybrids: Fact or fiction?

Famous Biologists

Dog-cow Hybrids

Georges Cuvier: A Biography

Prothero: A Rebuttal

Branches of Biology

Dog-fox Hybrids

Australopithecines - ©