Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Scientists Uncover 3.8 Million-Year-Old Skull Of Ancient Human Ancestor

The history of human evolution just got a little clearer after a game-changing discovery in Ethiopia. Researchers have uncovered the remains of an ancient human ancestor — the first such remains ever found.

Researchers found it in Afar Regional State, Ethiopia.

Flickr | Jean Rebiffé

The Woranso-Mille Paleoanthropological Research Project has been ongoing for the past 15 years. Their most recent discovery — one that's 3.8 million years old — may be the biggest one they've made to date.

They found this skull.

Nature / Cleveland Museum of Natural History

After a painstakingly long dig, they unearthed this skull, which is incredibly intact given its age. It's the first time a skull of this early human ancestor, Australopithecus anamensis, has ever been discovered.

They published their results this week.


Although the initial discovery was made in February, it took some time to gather the facts and issue a full study. It was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

So where does this skull fit in?

Wikimedia Commons

Australopithecus afarensis lived between 3.8 and 4.2 million years ago. That makes this specimen older than that of the famed "Lucy" skeleton (seen above), also discovered in Ethiopia, back in 1974. It also means this specimen is an ancestor of Lucy.

Here's what Australopithecus afarensis would have looked like.

Nature | Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Although it lived long before the first Homo sapiens, the human-like features of Australopithecus afarensis are strongly apparent. The skull found probably belonged to a male, but it's hard to say for sure.

What happened?

A little bit of prehistoric CSI has found that after this guy died, he probably got carried down a river some ways before being buried in river sediment for the next 3.8-ish million years.

It's a big deal.

Cleveland Museum of Natural History

While scientists already knew of the existence of this human ancestor, they'd never found a skull so intact. This gives us our best look yet at one of our ancient forebears.

What can it tell us?

Nature / Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Like other Australopiths, this specimen has a pretty huge face. In this case, the face protrudes, with prominent cheekbones. Unlike modern humans, the cranium is rather narrow, meaning it would accommodate a smaller brain.

Our family tree is pretty complex.

Wikimedia Commons | Carolyn WIlczynski

It wasn't just one species after another. Many human ancestors coexisted on Earth for thousands of years. Notably, Homo sapiens coexisted with Neanderthals for a few thousand years until we (predictably) wiped them out.

Let us know what you think in the comments!

It's a missing link of sorts.

Wikimedia Commons | W. Schnaubelt & N. Kieser

The earliest-known human ancestors walked on Earth around six million years ago. After that, there's a big gap until "Lucy". This discovery, slotted in a few millenia before Lucy, helps paint a fuller picture.

h/t: CNN