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Not just skin deep -- CT study of early humans reveals evolutionary relationships

University College London

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IMAGE: Pictured are a photograph and CT scan of Sts 5, the most well-preserved specimen of Australopithecus africanus. view more

Credit: Images courtesy of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, formerly the Transvaal Museum.

CT scans of fossil skull fragments may help researchers settle a long-standing debate about the evolution of Africa's Australopithecus, a key ancestor of modern humans that died out some 1.4 million years ago. The study, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains how CT scans shed new light on a classic evolutionary puzzle by providing crucial information about the internal anatomy of the face.

For decades scientists have disagreed about the significance of facial features shared by a number of Australopithecus species, and in particular two bony columns known as "anterior pillars" that extend up from the canine teeth and bracket the nasal opening.

Dr Brian Villmoare (University College London and The George Washington University) and Professor William Kimbel (Arizona State University) analysed CT scans of fossil skull fragments from five Australopithecus species and found that beneath the skin the internal structure of the anterior pillars is quite different for different species. According to the authors, South Africa's A. robustus and East Africa's A. boisei had solid columns of dense, spongy bone tissue and were probably sister species, while A. africanus (also from South Africa) probably evolved in parallel as its pillars are simply hollow columns of bone.

The authors argue that these structural differences show that anterior pillars evolved via different pathways in different species. The findings challenge long-standing theories that similar external facial features represent shared traits inherited from a common ancestor, and suggest instead that external similarities in South Africa's A. africanus and A. robustus were due to parallel evolution.

"We believe that the detailed similarities in the internal anatomy of the face strongly supports the hypothesis that there was a single evolutionary branch of 'robust australopithecines', and that the A. africanus and A. boisei forms both shared a common ancestor," says Dr Villmoare. "The external similarity of the anterior pillar in other Australopith species may be related to convergence on a similar dietary niche, but does not seem to indicate shared ancestry."

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Notes for editors

1. For further information or copies of the CT images, please contact Dave Weston in the UCL Press Office (Office: +44 (0) 20 3108 3844; Mobile: +44 (0) 7733 307 596; d.weston@ucl.ac.uk)

2. The full article, 'CT-based study of internal structure of the anterior pillar in extinct hominins and its implications for the phylogeny of robust Australopithecus', will be published in PNAS Online, Monday 19th September, 15:00hrs (Eastern Standard Time)

3. Caption for image: A photograph and CT scan of Sts 5, the most well-preserved specimen of Australopithecus africanus. Images courtesy of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, formerly the Transvaal Museum.

About UCL

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. Alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. UCL currently has over 13,000 undergraduate and 9,000 postgraduate students. Its annual income is over £700 million. Website: www.ucl.ac.uk

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