Researchers Find a New Distant Human Relative

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Add one more ancestor, Australopithecus garhi, to our human family tree. The latest addition, reported in the current issue of  Science, is the result of recent fossil discoveries near the Ethiopian village of Bouri and appears to fill a gaping hole in our understanding of where we come from. "What's exciting is that the fossil discoveries come from a period 2.5 million years ago -- a critical evolutionary transition period about which we know little," says TIME senior science reporter Andrea Dorfman. It was during this time that two-legged, walking, apelike hominids -- creatures like the famous Lucy -- evolved into the earliest known examples of our Homo lineage. But it is also from this time that we have one of the spottiest collections of fossils.

The latest discoveries fall into three groups, each located at a different site, but not far from each other: a partial skull and jaw whose combinations of traits indicate a new species; limbs from several individuals that suggest the development of legs of humanlike proportion much earlier than previously thought; and various tools next to animal bones that show evidence of scraping and bashing and suggest the exploitation of new food sources. "The hitch," says Dorfman, "is that there is nothing to definitively show that the relics left at the three sites belonged to the same creature or group of creatures."  But the evidence -- three close sites from the same period -- is there to suggest it. "The result," says Dorfman, "is that we have probably found another small piece of the complicated human evolution puzzle."