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Anthropologists Discover A 'Missing Link' in Human Evolution

An international team of anthropologists has discovered fossils in eastern Ethiopia that they say may be a missing link between our earliest and more modern ape-man ancestors. Scientists say the discovery fills a major gap in human evolution.

The new fossils were discovered by an international team of anthropologists in an archaeological depression in the Afar desert of eastern Ethiopia.

The latest discovery made between the year of 2000 and 2005 bridges two periods in human evolution: that of our oldest prehistoric ancestor, the 4 to 7 million-year-old Ardipithecus, and the more modern, 3.5 million-year-old Australopithecus.

"Lucy," the one-meter-tall adult female skeleton discovered in the Afar depression in 1974, was the most famous of the Australopithecine fossils.

The new fossils include a thigh bone, finger and hand bones, numerous teeth, a jaw bone and part of a skull, according to Tim White, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley who was was one of the team's leaders.

He says news of the discovery, published in the journal Nature along with co-authors in Ethiopia, Japan, France and the United States, helps scientists understand how humans evolved.

"Every time you find one fossil, it fills a gap, but it creates two smaller gaps. And if we get those gaps mostly filled, then we can have a good idea of where we came from and how we evolved, the sort of where and when and how and why questions," he said.

Along with the hominid remains, White says archaeologists have unearthed skeletons of monkeys, antelopes, pigs and birds, suggesting that Afar was lush and heavily forested in prehistoric times, instead of the barren desert that it is today.

White says his team of 60 scientists from 17 countries will continue to explore their study area for even greater finds tracing back human origins.

"One of the biggest challenges is tying the fossils that we've found and are announcing now at 4.1 million [years] back into earlier fossils and perhaps, if we are very fortunate, finding in rocks more than six million years old the last common ancestor that we shared with living chimpanzees," he said.