Two-million-year-old fossils offer insight into possible evolutionary bridge
Cassie Williams Jones
“For human kind to advance forward, it may have to look back.”
These words, spoken by South African ambassador to the United States, the Honorable Ibrahim Rasool, embody the essence of a significant scientific and historical finding, on display this semester at VCU.
Rasool visited VCU on Tuesday for the official opening of “Australopithecine!”, an exhibit in the VCU James Branch Cabell Library featuring two fossilized specimens of the controversial Australopithecus sediba (A. sediba), a human-like primate with an estimated brain capacity that is a third of that found in anatomically modern humans (also known as Homo sapiens sapiens).
Professors and students in the Anthropology program in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences coordinated the exhibit, which is on display on the first floor of the library through Dec. 18.
The “delightfully unexpected image of Africa” is “helping to restore the dignity of the continent,” said Rasool, as he thanked VCU for being a great friend of Africa.
Discovered in 2008 in South Africa at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, the fossils arguably offer a new set of possible implications in the study of evolution and could shed light on how early humans migrated from Africa to other continents. The exhibit is on loan from the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa in Washington D.C.
“One of our goals for this exhibit was to inform and interest people and at least give recognition to the name Australopithecus sediba,” said Noel Boaz, Ph.D., M.D., affiliate research professor of anthropology at VCU and curator of the exhibit.
Boaz was assisted by other faculty members and students in the Anthropology program, which has grown significantly over its 22 years at VCU and is now the largest anthropology program in the state.
This opportunity for hands-on work made Lindsay Tarin, an anthropology alumna who graduated in May, excited “to finally put my anthropology study to fruition,” she said.
The nearly 2-million-year-old specimens, one a child and the other an adult, are the center of ongoing debates in the scientific community because of the possibility of them being an evolutionary bridge to the genus Homo in the hominid family.
The region of South Africa where the fossils were discovered is dry and arid, but the cave in which the remains were found had flowing water. The specimens, thought to be related - possibly mother and son - are believed to have fallen in the cave in their search for water and died there. Layers of sediment from the flowing water formed over the fossils, helping protect and preserve them.
Opportunities to examine the differences between humans today and A. sediba in terms of brain size, diet and other aspects of life can be explored in the exhibit. It also walks visitors through the possible cause of the deaths of the specimens, their relationship to one another and the challenge of preserving them for the future.
The exhibit is made possible by VCU’s partnerships with the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Integrative Centers for Science and Medicine and the International Institute for Human Evolutionary Research. It is co-sponsored by VCU, the Anthropology program, School of World Studies, the College of Humanities and Sciences, VCU Libraries and VCU Friends of the Library. For more information, visit http://www.library.vcu.edu/events/fossils/.