'Missing link' between man and apes 'found'

An international team has found a two-million-year-old skeleton of a child which it claims is a new species of hornid that may've been an intermediate stage as apemen evolved into first species of advanced humans known as Homo habilis. According to the palaeontologists, the skeleton shares characteristics with Homo habilis, whose emergence 2.5 million years ago is seen as a key stage in the evolution of humans.

The team, led by Prof Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, found the skeleton while exploring cave systems in the Sterkfontein region of South Africa, near Johannesburg, an area known as "the Cradle of Humanity". Prof Phillip Tobias, an eminent human anatomist and anthropologist at the university who was one of three experts to first identify Homo habilis as a new species of human in 1964, described the discovery as "wonderful" and "exciting".

"To find a skeleton as opposed to a couple of teeth or an arm bone is a rarity. It is one thing to find a lower jaw with a couple of teeth, but it is another thing to find the jaw joined onto the skull, and those in turn uniting further down with the spinal column, pelvis and the limb bones. "It is not a single find, but several specimens representing several individuals. The remains now being brought to light by Dr Berger and his team are wonderful," 'The Daily Telegraph' quoted him as saying.

The new fossil skeleton was found along with a number of other partially-complete fossils, encased within breccia sedimentary rock inside a limestone cave known as Malapa cave. Dr Simon Underdown, an expert on human evolution at Oxford Brookes University, said the new finding could help scientists gain a better understanding of our evolutionary tree.

"A find like this could really increase our understanding of our early ancestors at a time when they first started to become recognisable as human," he said. The discovery is the most important find from Sterkfontein since an almost-complete fossil of a 3.3-million- year-old Australopithecus, nicknamed Little Foot, was found in 1994.

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