Nine-Year-Old Trips Over Rock That Turns Out To Be Fossil Of Human “Missing Link”

Published January 23, 2019
Updated August 6, 2020

It is believed that the 2 million-year-old skeleton fills the gap between our apelike ancestors and those early humans who used tools.

Au Sediba Skull

Wikimedia CommonsThe skull of Au. sediba.

A little boy walking his dog in South Africa unknowingly stumbled across the remains of a nearly 2 million-year-old couple that is now believed to fill an integral gap in our understanding of human evolution.

In 2008, nine-year-old Matthew Berger and his dog tripped over the partly fossilized bones of an adult female and a juvenile male in a cavern in Malapa, near Johannesburg, South Africa. Since then, there has been much debate over whether these remains are genuinely distinct from previously discovered species.

Matthew Berger Discovery

Wikimedia CommonsNine-year-old Matthew Berger upon the skeleton’s discovery.

The bones were found to be a close relative of the Homo genus and have come to be known as Australopithecus sediba (Au. Sediba) — “Australopithecus” means “southern ape.” And now, according to a new study, the remains are believed to be the bridge in human evolution between early humans and our more apelike ancestors.

Australopithecus sediba is thought to come between the 3-million-year-old apelike species known as Australopithecus afarensis (from which the famous “Lucy” specimen comes) and the “Handyman” species known as Homo habilis, who used tools 1.5 million to 2.1 million years ago.

And these latest Au. Sediba skeletons are even more complete than the famous “Lucy,” whose 1974 discovery was previously unprecedented.

“The anatomies we are seeing in Australopithecus sediba are forcing us to reassess the pathway by which we became human,” reported Jeremy DeSilva, co-author of the study.

Au. Sediba Full Skeleton Display

Wikimedia CommonsThe skeleton of Au. sediba on display at Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa.

Though some researchers have noted this discovery as indeed that of a unique species since its uncovering in 2008, this latest study illustrates precisely how Au. sediba is, in fact, distinct. The study thoroughly describes the new species’ anatomy and has found similarities with early members of the Homo genus “suggesting a close evolutionary relationship.”

The hands of the nearly 2-million-year-old Au. sediba resemble those of Homo habilis but are not the same, which suggests that the former was also able to use tools or at the very least, had a more precise grip than that of earlier species.

Australopithecus sediba is also now believed to have walked on two feet, though it would have spent much of its time in the trees, “perhaps for foraging and protection from predators,” the study said.

And all this, remember, came from an accidental discovery.

“Imagine for a moment that Matthew stumbled over the rock and continued following his dog without noticing the fossil,” the authors wrote. “If those events had occurred instead, out science would not know about Au. sediba, but those fossils would still be there, still encased in calcified clastic sediments, still waiting to be discovered.”

Next up, check out the story behind the Hasanlu lovers, two skeletons locked in a 2,800-year-old embrace. Then, read about this discovery of an extraordinarily well-preserved military horse uncovered in Pompeii.

Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Silverman, Leah. "Nine-Year-Old Trips Over Rock That Turns Out To Be Fossil Of Human “Missing Link”.", January 23, 2019, Accessed May 21, 2024.