Early Hominins: Genus Australopithecus

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 Photo A shows an A. afarensis skull, which is similar in shape but the forehead slopes back and the jaw juts out. Photo A shows a human skull.
Australopithicene and modern human skulls. The skull of (a) Australopithecus afarensis, an early hominid that lived between two and three million years ago, resembled that of (b) modern humans but was smaller with a sloped forehead, larger teeth, and a prominent jaw. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

Australopithecus (“southern ape”) is a genus of hominin that evolved in eastern Africa approximately four million years ago and went extinct about two million years ago. This genus is of particular interest to us as it is thought that our genus, genus Homo, evolved from a common ancestor shared with Australopithecus about two million years ago (after likely passing through some transitional states). Australopithecus had a number of characteristics that were more similar to the great apes than to modern humans. For example, sexual dimorphism was more exaggerated than in modern humans. Males were up to 50 percent larger than females, a ratio that is similar to that seen in modern gorillas and orangutans. In contrast, modern human males are approximately 15 to 20 percent larger than females. The brain size of Australopithecus relative to its body mass was also smaller than in modern humans and more similar to that seen in the great apes. A key feature that Australopithecus had in common with modern humans was bipedalism, although it is likely that Australopithecus also spent time in trees. Hominin footprints, similar to those of modern humans, were found in Laetoli, Tanzania and dated to 3.6 million years ago. They showed that hominins at the time of Australopithecus were walking upright.

There were a number of Australopithecus species, which are often referred to as australopithsAustralopithecus anamensis lived about 4.2 million years ago. More is known about another early species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. This species demonstrates a trend in human evolution: the reduction of the dentition and jaw in size. A. afarensis had smaller canines and molars compared to apes, but these were larger than those of modern humans. Its brain size was 380 to 450 cubic centimeters, approximately the size of a modern chimpanzee brain. It also had prognathic jaws, which is a relatively longer jaw than that of modern humans. In the mid-1970s, the fossil of an adult female A. afarensis was found in the Afar region of Ethiopia and dated to 3.24 million years ago. The fossil, which is informally called “Lucy,” is significant because it was the most complete australopith fossil found, with 40 percent of the skeleton recovered.

Partial skeleton is human-like but child-sized.
Lucy. This adult female Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, nicknamed Lucy, was discovered in the mid-1970s. (credit: “120”/Wikimedia Commons)

Australopithecus africanus lived between two and three million years ago. It had a slender build and was bipedal, but had robust arm bones and, like other early hominids, may have spent significant time in trees. Its brain was larger than that of A. afarensis at 500 cubic centimeters, which is slightly less than one-third the size of modern human brains. Two other species, Australopithecus bahrelghazali and Australopithecus garhi, have been added to the roster of australopiths in recent years. A. bahrelghazali is unusual in being the only australopith found in Central Africa.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e


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