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New footprint finds suggest range of body sizes for Lucy’s species

Sign of tallest known Australopithecus afarensis individual unearthed in Tanzania

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1:04pm, December 16, 2016
A. afarensis footprints

BIG MARKS  Footprints of the largest known Australopithecus afarensis, dating to nearly 3.7 million years ago, have been found in hardened volcanic ash at Tanzania’s Laetoli site. These tracks run left to right.

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Famous footprints of nearly 3.7-million-year-old hominids, found in 1976 at Tanzania’s Laetoli site, now have sizable new neighbors.

While excavating small pits in 2015 to evaluate the impact of a proposed field museum at Laetoli, researchers uncovered comparably ancient hominid footprints about 150 meters from the original discoveries. The new finds reveal a vast range of body sizes for ancient members of the human evolutionary family, reports an international team led by archaeologists Fidelis Masao and Elgidius Ichumbaki, both of the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

A description of the new Laetoli footprints appears online December 14 in eLife.

Scientists exposed 14 hominid footprints, made by two individuals as they walked across wet volcanic ash. More than 500 footprints of ancient horses, rhinos, birds and other animals dotted the area around the hominid tracks. Like previously unearthed tracks of three individuals who apparently strode across the same layer of soft ash at the same time, the latest footprints were probably made by members of Australopithecus afarensis, the team says. Best known for Lucy, a partial skeleton discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, A. afarensis inhabited East Africa from around 4 million to 3 million years ago.

All but one of the 14 hominid impressions come from the same individual. Based on footprint dimensions, the researchers estimate that this presumed adult male — nicknamed Chewie in honor of the outsized Star Wars character Chewbacca — stood about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed nearly 100 pounds. That makes him the tallest known A. afarensis. The team calculates that the remaining hominid footprint was probably made by a 4-foot-9-inch female who weighed roughly 87 pounds. Stature estimates based on the other three Laetoli footprint tracks fall below that of the ancient female.

Lucy lived later than the Laetoli crowd, around 3.2 million years ago, and was about 3 ½ feet tall.

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Size ranges

New footprints from the Laetoli site suggest members of Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, may have been as tall as 5 feet 5 inches. Estimated statures for A. afarensis at another site and for other ancient hominids over time are also shown. 

Minimum and maximum estimated statures of selected fossil hominids

If Laetoli’s five impression-makers were traveling together, “we can suppose that the Laetoli social group was similar to that of modern gorillas, with one large male and a harem of smaller females and perhaps juveniles,” says paleontologist and study coauthor Marco Cherin of the University of Perugia in Italy.

Chewie’s stature challenges a popular assumption that hominid body sizes abruptly increased with the emergence of the Homo genus, probably shortly after A. afarensis died out, Cherin adds.

The new paper presents reasonable stature estimates based on the Laetoli footprints, but “we don’t have a firm idea of how foot size was related to overall body size in Australopithecus,” says evolutionary biologist Kevin Hatala of Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Masao’s group referred to size data from present-day humans to calculate heights and weights of A. afarensis footprint-makers. That approach “could lead to some error,” Hatala says.

Stature estimates based on footprints face other obstacles, says paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. For instance, some tall individuals have small feet and short folks occasionally have long feet. It’s also unclear whether the new footprints and those from 1976 represent a single group, or if some smaller footprints were also made by males, Haile-Selassie adds. Cherin’s proposal that large A. afarensis males controlled female harems “is a bit of a stretch,” Haile-Selassie says.

The new report doesn’t document surprisingly large size differences among members of Lucy’s kind, Haile-Selassie adds. A. afarensis fossils previously excavated in Ethiopia include a partial male skeleton now estimated by Haile-Selassie and his colleagues to have been only about three inches shorter than Chewie’s reported height (SN: 7/17/10, p. 5).

Citations

F. Masao et al. New footprints from Laetoli (Tanzania) provide evidence for marked body size variation in early hominins. eLife. Published December 14, 2016. Doi:10.7554/eLife.19568.

Further Reading

B. Bower. Laetoli footprints show signs of unusual gait. Science News Online. April 15, 2014.

B. Bower. Lucy fossil gets jolted upright by Big Man. Science News. Vol. 178, July 17, 2010, p. 5.

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