Sunday, October 11, 2009

The miracle of Ardi

I just watched "Discovering Ardi," a Discovery channel program which traced the 15 year journey from the discovery of the 4.4 million year old fossil remains of Ardipithecus ramidus--the oldest hominid found to date--to an understanding of how this creature lived and the place it represents on our own evolutionary path.

A. ramidus is a unique find: an ancestor of Homo sapiens that proves we didn't descend from a chimpanzee-like ape (because Ardi didn't walk on its knuckles) and reveals that our line probably took form not in the savannah as has long been believed but rather in wooded areas. And unlike Lucy, Ardi spent more time living in trees, a fact deduced from its grasping foot.

Ardi was bipedal and shows few of the other anatomical characteristics that are considered to be human. Bipedalism must be part of the essential, complex adaptation that distinguishes the human evolutionary line from the apes and from all other creatures on earth. Ardi's discoverers suggest that bipedalism reinforced pair bonding by allowing males to bring more food to their mates and offspring, thus increasing the reproductive success of the species. And unlike all living and fossil apes, Ardi--like other hominids--has small male canine teeth. This suggests that females were choosing mates who spent less time fighting which would have freed them to gather more food.

Twenty-four years ago I read Lucy: The Beginnings of Humakind for a human biology course at Stanford. Drs. Owen Lovejoy and Tim White both featured prominently in that book; it was so cool to watch them at work and discussing their find in the follow-up program, "Understanding Ardi."

The last few minutes of "Discovering Ardi" got me: no other creature we know of has ever traced its origins, and in doing so, confirmed its connection to the rest of the world around it. We are of the world, yet still unique. We reach for the stars, but our history lies in the earth. It's pretty damn crazy...

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