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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    UA scientist finds ‘missing link’

    A UA geologist may have found a missing link in the 400,000-year-old skull unearthed in Ethiopia in February.

    Geosciences professor Jay Quade and his team braved warring tribes and desert conditions to discover a near-complete fossilized cranium that could provide insight into the origin of humans.

    “”I think it’s very unusual to find something this complete,”” Quade said.

    Aside from the condition of the skull, the find is remarkable because it comes from a time period with a gap of hundreds of thousands of years, Quade said.

    The skull is estimated as being 400,000 years old because of the sediment it was found in. The modern humans evolved 200,000 years ago and earlier fossil records of Homo erectus, a human ancestor, are dated as being 600,000 years old.

    The gap in the fossil record is from a transitional period where Homo erectus could have evolved into the Homo sapiens of today, Quade said.

    Quade said it will take several years of analysis on the skull and samples of rock fragments found in the area before a conclusion is made on its significance.

    “”The jury is still out as far as the overall significance,”” Quade said. “”Is this an ancestor or is it an evolutionary dead end?””

    Quade is analyzing the rock samples found in the vicinity of the skull to determine the geological age of the find.

    The skull was found by the team’s guide in the Gona region of Ethiopia, an area made particularly dangerous by warring tribes.

    “”Up until now that particular part of our study has been a battleground,”” Quade said. “”You take advantage to tribes being defeated to look in certain areas.””

    The Gona region is dominated by the Issa tribe and is still plagued by tribal raiding, Quade said.

    “”This place is truly the wild West out there,”” he said.

    When Quade and a fellow geologist heard a gunshot while in the field, they immediately dropped to the ground. Realizing it was a shot from a pistol, Quade took it as a signal from the guide.

    “”All males above age 13 carry AK-47s,”” Quade said.

    The guide met with the team carrying a large object wrapped in his turban.

    “”I did a back somersault when I saw this,”” Quade said.

    Wrapped in the turban was a near complete cranium that had not been seen in thousands of years.

    The skull differs from earlier finds in that it has a slightly less sloped forehead, but it still retains the heavy brow and a slightly protruding snout, Quade said.

    The top and back of the skull appear to have modern characteristics, Quade said.

    “”Modernism looks like it moves from the back to the front,”” Quade said.

    The size and shape of the brain cavity will be studied to determine which areas modernize first and which remain primitive, Quade said.

    UA anthropology professor Steven Kuhn said the find is remarkable because it comes from a time of evolution of the human species.

    “”This is important because this just predates the population that gave rise to us,”” Kuhn said. “”It can tell us a lot about the trajectory of evolution by connecting the dots.””

    Kuhn said the possibility of closing the gaps in the fossil record becomes more complex because each new find raises questions.

    “”Every time you find a missing link, there’s always a missing link beside it,”” Kuhn said.

    The skull now resides in a storage drawer in the Ethiopian National Museum, the same place the famous archeological find “”Lucy,”” a prehistoric skeleton, is stored.

    Quade said the skull is a national treasure and will never leave Ethiopia’s borders.

    “”It’s like sending the Declaration of Independence to another country,”” he said.

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