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Johannesburg – A team of South African and international scientists from the
Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)  
and 15 other global institutions, are publishing six papers and an introduction by
Prof. Lee Berger, the lead author and project leader, in the prestigious journal
Science tomorrow, Friday, 12 April 2013.

The papers report on some of the most complete early human ancestral remains
ever discovered.  The 2-million-year-old fossils belong to the species
Australopithecus sediba (Au. sediba) and provide what Berger, from the Wits
Evolutionary Studies Institute, describes as “unprecedented insight into the
anatomy and phylogenetic position of an early human ancestor”.

The six papers represent the culmination of more than four years of research into
the anatomy of Au. sediba based on the holotype and paratype skeletons
commonly referred to as MH1 and MH2, as well as the adult isolated tibia referred to
as MH4. The fossil remains were discovered at the site of Malapa in August of 2008,
and the species was named in 2010 by Berger and his colleagues. The articles
presented in Science complete the initial examination of the prepared material
attributed to these three individuals.  

The papers are entitled: Dental morphology and the phylogenetic “place” of
Australopithecus sediba; Mandibular remains support taxonomic validity of
Australopithecus sediba; The upper limb of Australopithecus sediba; Mosaic
morphology in the thorax of Australopithecus sediba; The vertebral column of
Australopithecus sediba; and The lower limb and the mechanics of walking in
Australopithecus sediba, with the introduction entitled The Mosaic Anatomy of
Australopithecus sediba.

In essence, the six studies describe how the 2-million-year-old Au. sediba walked,
chewed and moved.

Berger summarises that Au. sediba provides us with the most comprehensive
examination of the anatomy of a definitive single species of early hominin. “This
examination of a large number of associated, often complete and undistorted
elements, gives us a glimpse of a hominin species that appears to be mosaic in its
anatomy and that presents a suite of functional complexes that are both different
from that predicted for other australopiths, as well as that for early Homo.

Such clear insight into the anatomy of an early hominin species will clearly have
implications for interpreting the evolutionary processes that affected the mode and
tempo of hominin evolution and the interpretation of the anatomy of less well
preserved species,” says Berger.

“Aside from the 26 authors from 16 institutions involved in these publications, the
team focusing its research efforts on Au. sediba and Malapa now numbers more
than 100 researchers from around the world and represents one of the largest
dedicated archaeological or palaeontological research programmes,” says Prof.
Loyiso Nongxa, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the
Witwatersrand. Berger adds that the work undertaken to date, although only five
years in the making (since the discovery of the site in mid-2008), represents some
of the most extensive focused literature on a single early hominin species yet
created.

Included in the recent discoveries from the site are a new species of fox, named by
the team as Vulpes skinneri  just three months ago, and the discovery of more than
300 early human ancestor remains, including parts of skeletons still encased in
rock.  

Berger concludes: “Discoveries such as Australopithecus sediba and the Malapa
site demonstrate the need for further African based exploration in the rich fossil
fields of southern Africa, and additionally demonstrate the tremendous promise of
the palaeosciences on the continent.”