Have you ever put together a jigsaw puzzle? You start with a
picture that shows what the completed puzzle will look like. Then you fit the
pieces together until they make up that picture.
Suppose, though, that you didn’t have a picture to work with, but only the
pieces? Even worse, what if most of the pieces were missing? How hard would the
puzzle be then?
That’s the situation facing scientists who study early hominids. These
scientists are trying to understand how and when early hominids developed. The
puzzle pieces they work with are bits of bone that are millions of years old.
Scientists know that they have only some of the pieces. Each new find gives
them another clue to work with.
Gradually, the overall shape of the picture becomes a bit clearer. For
instance, scientists today agree that hominids first appeared in Africa. But
only 60 years ago, even this much of the picture was unclear. It took many
finds to convince scientists that Africa was the birthplace of early hominids.
Each of these finds was the result of hard, patient work. You read about
several of these discoveries in Chapter 2 of History Alive! The Ancient World
Here you will learn about some other important pieces of the hominid puzzle—and
the people who found them.
The Taung Child
In 1924, an anthropologist named Raymond Dart examined an ancient skull that
had been found in a quarry in Taung, South Africa. The skull belonged to a
young, apelike creature. It became known as the Taung Child. Dart gave the
fossil a more scientific name: Australopithecus africanus. This name
is Latin for “southern ape from Africa.”
The Taung Child was the first Australopithecus fossil ever found. It
is 2 to 3 million years old. Dart was thrilled by the discovery. He thought it
showed that the earliest hominids appeared in Africa. Other scientists
disagreed. At that time, many of them believed that hominids first appeared in
Asia. Over the next 20 years, a Scottish anthropologist, Robert Broom,
collected more and more Australopithecus fossils in Africa. By the
1940s, most scientists had to agree that Dart was right.
Far to the north, Mary Leakey found more puzzle pieces at Olduvai Gorge in East
Africa. Mary and her husband, Louis, had spent 30 years searching the gorge for
hominid remains. In 1959, Mary found hundreds of bits of bone. When she pieced
them together, they made up the skull of a previously unknown type of hominid.
The fossil was nicknamed Nutcracker Man for its large jaw. Today it is called Australopithecus
boisei. It is more than 1.7 million years old.
More evidence was found by Mary and Louis’s son, Richard Leakey. Richard found
his first fossil when he was just six years old—a part of an extinct pig. As a
young man, he began leading expeditions in East Africa.
Richard made many important finds, including skulls and other bones of Homo
habilis and Homo erectus. In 1970, he found another
Nutcracker Man fossil.
Richard’s most famous discovery came in 1984, near Lake Turkana in Kenya. Most
hominid fossils are small parts of the body. The new find was a nearly complete
Homo erectus skeleton. Known as the Turkana Boy, it is about 1.6
million years old.
Richard’s wife, Meave, has also hunted fossils in Africa. Among her finds are
still more species of early hominids. Richard and Meave’s daughter, Louise, has
worked with Meave on field expeditions, continuing the proud Leakey tradition.
Footprints at Laetoli
Mary Leakey made many finds during her long career. The one that excited her
the most was a truly fantastic discovery: hominid footprints more than 3.5
million years old!
Mary’s team spotted the footprints in 1976 at Laetoli. This site is about 30
miles south of Olduvai Gorge. The footprints were found in a layer of volcanic
ash. Apparently, a volcano erupted shortly after the footprints were made. When
the ash hardened, it preserved the footprints.
Besides being amazingly old, the footprints were important for another reason.
The creatures that made them had walked upright on two feet. The footprints
were even older than the famous fossil nicknamed Lucy. They showed that
hominids were walking upright at a very early date.
A Truly Ancient Hominid
Tim White, an American anthropologist, helped excavate the Laetoli footprints.
He also worked with Donald Johanson, who found Lucy. White’s own teams have
made a number of other finds. One of them pushed hominid history even farther
back in time.
In 1994, White was working in Ethiopia. An African member of his team
discovered hominid fossils that proved to be 4.4 million years old. The fossils
had a very ancient combination of apelike and humanlike features.
White and his co-workers called the new species Ardipithecus ramidus.
The word ramid means “root” in the Afar language of Ethiopia. The
researchers thought that the fossil was very close to the root of the hominid
These discoveries, and many more like them, are helping scientists to piece
together the story of early hominids. Scientists often argue about exactly how
the pieces fit together and what the big picture looks like. Meanwhile, they
keep on looking. They know that there are many more pieces of the puzzle
scattered around Africa, waiting to be found.
Create a cover for an issue of Dig It! magazine that highlights the
discoveries of scientists studying early hominids. Your cover must include
||an imaginative subtitle.
||attractive visuals of three discoveries made by scientists
studying early hominids.
||brief captions that describe each discovery and explain why
it is important to the study of early hominids.
||writing that is free of grammar and spelling mistakes.
other colorful and creative touches.