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Discovery of ancient skull in Ethiopia unearths new clues on human evolution4 min read

The skull, known as “MRD”, was discovered not far from the younger Lucy — the ancient ancestor of modern humans

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Discovery of ancient skull in Ethiopia unearths new clues on human evolution
A partial facial reconstruction of an Australopithecus skull. - A new candidate for the prehistoric pantheon? A 3.8 million-year-old "remarkably complete" Australopithecus skull has been discovered in Ethiopia, a discovery that once again challenges our vision of evolution. (Photo by HO / CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY / AFP)

A “remarkably complete” 3.8-million-year-old skull of an early human has been unearthed in Ethiopia, scientists announced Wednesday, a discovery that has the potential to alter our understanding of human evolution.

The skull, known as “MRD”, was discovered not far from the younger Lucy — the ancient ancestor of modern humans — and shows that the two species may have co-existed for about 100,000 years.

“This skull is one of the most complete fossils of hominids more than 3 million years old,” said Yohannes Haile-Selassie, the renowned Ethiopian paleoanthropologist of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History who is a co-author of two studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

It “looks set to become another celebrated icon of human evolution,” joining the ranks of other high-profile hominid findings, Fred Spoor of the Natural History Museum of London wrote in a commentary accompanying the studies.

Discovery of ancient skull in Ethiopia unearths new clues on human evolution
Ethiopian paleoanthropologist of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Yohannes Haile-Selassie is pictured during a press conference on the presentation of a 3.8 million-year-old skull of an early human, known as ‘MRD’ and belonging to the species Australopithecus anamensis, in Addis Ababa on August 28, 2019. (Photo by MICHAEL TEWELDE / AFP)

“Toumai” (of the species Sahelanthropus tchadensis) is around 7 million years old and is considered by some paleontologists to be the first representative of the human lineage. It was discovered in Chad in 2001. 

Ardi (for Ardipithecus ramidus, another species of hominid) was found in Ethiopia in 1994 and is believed to be around 4.5 million years old. 

And Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and is 3.2 million years old.

Australopithecus afarensis is one of the longest-lived and most studied early human species.

The new skull, MRD, belongs to the species Australopithecus anamensis. 

Discovered in February 2016 at the site of Woranso-Mille, just 55 kilometres from where Lucy was found in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia, MRD offers “the first glimpse of the face of Lucy’s ancestor,” according to a statement announcing the finding.

Other lesser-known Australopithecus fossils date back at least 3.9 million years, but they featured only jaws and teeth. Without the skull, scientists’ understanding of the evolution of these extinct hominids has remained limited.

‘Dream come true’-

The finding challenges a previously held belief about how humans evolved. 

“We thought A. anamensis (MRD) was gradually turning into A. afarensis (Lucy) over time,” said Stephanie Melillo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, a co-author of the Nature studies.

But MRD reveals that the two species co-existed for about 100,000 years, the scientists said.

“This is a game-changer in our understanding of human evolution during the Pliocene,” Haile-Selassie said.

Discovery of ancient skull in Ethiopia unearths new clues on human evolution
Stephanie Melillo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany addresses a press conference in Addis Ababa on August 28, 2019. (Photo by MICHAEL TEWELDE / AFP)

Melillo agreed, saying it also raised new questions like whether the species competed for space or food.

Though small, the skull has been determined to be that of an adult. Facial reconstructions show a hominid with cheekbones projected forward, a prominent jaw, a flat nose and a narrow forehead.

To the researchers’ surprise, the skull represents a mixture of characteristics of Sahelanthropus like “Toumai” and Ardipithecus like “Ardi” as well as more recent species.

“Until now, there was a big gap between the oldest human ancestors, which are about 6 million years old, and species like ‘Lucy’, which are two to three million years old,” said Melillo. But MRD “links the morphological space between these two groups,” she added.

At a press conference in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, Haile-Selassie described how Ali Bereino, a “local guy” from Afar, found the jaw of MRD and immediately brought it to Haile-Selassie’s attention.

The cranium was soon found nearby, and workers spent days sifting through earth that was “1 per cent dirt and 99 per cent goat poop”, Haile-Selassie said.

“People were not disgusted by it… but some of them of course had to cover their faces because the smell was so bad,” he said.

It was a small price to pay for the discovery of such a complete specimen, he said.

“I did not believe my eyes when I saw the rest of the skull,” recalled Haile-Selassie, who described the discovery as “a eureka moment and a dream come true”.

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Culture & Tourism

Rotimi and Stefflon Don herald Yuletide aura in Lagos with visits

The Yuletide season is here and Lagos is starting to get busy with activities and celebrities trooping in

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Rotimi and Stefflon Don herald Yuletide aura in Lagos with visits

True to her position as the entertainment capital of Africa, Lagos has begun it usual yuletide buzz with lots of activities, the kind which points to the fact that Christmas is around the corner.

Lagos was agog on Sunday as Rotimi Akinosho of “Power” television series visited the megacity. The singer, actor and model who is widely known for his roles in the series, “Boss” and “Power” visited Lagos for a series of events which included the grand opening of an unspecified club.

The singer cum actor who was born by Nigerian parents has been doing it big in America where he lives since he shot to the limelight a few years ago. Earlier this year, he announced he bought a new house.

We had an interview with Rotimi where he revealed some insights into his life, his music and role as Andre Coleman in “Power”.

Rotimi’s journey to stardom started when he secured his first acting role in the series “Boss”, where he played the role of a drug dealer perfectly. He followed it up with 3 appearances in “Betrayal”, then the Starz T.V series, “Power”. It has been success upon success ever since.

WATCH: Rotimi performs an acoustic cover of “Love Riddim”.

Just a day before Rotimi’s visit, Britsh singer, Stefflon Don had her debut concert in Lagos.

The concert, tagged “Reggae Afrobeat Jamrock Concert” went down at the Landmark Beachfront, Victoria Island. The ‘Hurtin Me’ singer thrilled fans with her scintillating performance at the concert which featured other Afrobeat artistes. 

Tickets for the concert sold at ₦3000 for Regular; VIP went for ₦7000, cabanas and cabana premium sold for ₦500k and ₦1M respectively. 

We expect more events and concerts this yuletide period in Lagos, even as we bask in the euphoria of Stefflon Don and Rotimi’s visits in the meantime.

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Business

South African Airways cancels flights ahead of strike

Around 3,000 South African Airways workers are expected to take part in the open-ended strike starting Friday

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South African Airways cancels flights ahead of strike
A South African airways flight takes off as another one is parked in a bay on the tarmac at the Johannesburg O.R Tambo International airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gianluigi GUERCIA / AFP)

South African Airways (SAA) said Wednesday it was cancelling all its flights as thousands of workers vowed to press ahead with an indefinite strike the following day after the troubled national carrier announced a major retrenchment plan.

Around 3,000 workers, including cabin crew, check-in, ticket sales, technical and ground staff, are expected to take part in the open-ended strike starting Friday, their unions said.

The looming shutdown forced SAA to announce in a late-night statement on Wednesday that it “has cancelled nearly all its domestic, regional and international flights scheduled for Friday, November 15 and Saturday, November 16”.

“The airline’s key objective is to minimise the impact of disruptions for its customers,” it said.

Unions earlier Wednesday vowed their members would forge ahead with the strike, which the state-owned airline warned could collapse the embattled carrier.

“We are embarking on the mother of all strikes,” Zazi Nsibanyoni-Mugambi, president of the South African Cabin Crew Association (SACCA) told a news conference in Johannesburg.

“We are grounding that airline on Friday,” said Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

The unions are pressing for a three-year guarantee of job security and an eight per cent across-the-board wage hike. 

‘Mother of all strikes’ –

Pilots — who are not taking part in the strike – have accepted a 5.9-per cent increase, they said.

The airline had announced on Monday a restructuring process that could affect 944 employees and “lead to job losses”.

The airline, which employs more than 5,000 workers, is one of the biggest in Africa, with a fleet of more than 50 aircraft providing dozens of domestic, regional and European flights each day.

Read: Africa World Airlines and South Africa Airways sign agreement

But the company is deep in debt, despite several government bailouts, and has not recorded a profit since 2011.

The unions blamed the SAA board and executive management for the airline’s crisis.

“They have deliberately destroyed what used to be one of the world’s best airlines, because of maladministration, rampant looting and corruption,” they said in a statement.

SAA Chief Executive Officer Zuks Ramasia warned that the strike would “exacerbate rather than ameliorate our problem” and urged the unions to make affordable demands.

“The unions and all employees should be mindful of the current financial constraints the company is facing,” she said in a statement.

She said the unions were aware that the airline’s financial woes were “caused by a number of factors, including a severely distressed global airline industry.”

This, she argued, had resulted in “numerous airlines retrenching staff, embarking on cost-reduction programmes, implementing wage freezes, reducing operations, or even closing down.”

The airline has been surviving off government bailouts. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced in February that the government would reimburse the company’s 9.2-billion-rand ($620-million) debt over the next three years.

South Africa is struggling to get its state-owned companies back on track after nine years of corruption and mismanagement under former president Jacob Zuma.

Analyst Daniel Silke warned in a tweet that the planned strike “may kill an airline already on its knees affecting the jobs of thousands more.”

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Conservation News

Former Spanish garrison becomes tourist magnet

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Former Spanish garrison becomes tourist magnet
Kite-surfers manuever their kites at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

In the heart of Western Sahara, a former garrison town has become an unlikely tourist magnet after kitesurfers discovered the windswept desert coast was perfect for their sport.

In Dakhla, an Atlantic seaport town punctuated with military buildings in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, swarms of kitesurfers now sail in the lagoon daily.

“Here there is nothing other than sun, wind and waves. We turned the adversity of the elements to our advantage: that’s the very principle of kitesurfing,” said Rachid Roussafi. 

After an international career in windsurfing and kitesurfing, Roussafi founded the first tourist camp at the lagoon at the start of the 2000s. 

“At the time, a single flight a week landed in Dakhla,” the 49-year-old Moroccan said.

Today, there are 25 a week, including direct flights to Europe.

“Dakhla has become a world destination for kitesurfing,” said Mohamed Cherif, a regional politician.

Tourist numbers have jumped from 25,000 in 2010 to 100,000 today, he said, adding they hoped to reach 200,000 annual visitors. 

Tourists watch kitesurfers at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara
Tourists watch kitesurfers at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

The former Spanish garrison is booming today with the visitor influx adding to fishing and trade revenue.

Kitesurfing requires pricey gear — including a board, harness and kite — and the niche tourism spot attracts well-off visitors of all nationalities. 

Peyo Camillade came from France “to extend the summer season”, with a week’s holiday costing about 1,500 euros ($1,660). 

Only the names of certain sites, like PK 25 (kilometre point 25), ruined forts in the dunes and the imposing and still in-use military buildings in Dakhla, remind tourists of the region’s history of conflict.

In the 1970s, Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, and fought a war with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front from 1975 to 1991, when a ceasefire deal was agreed.

A United Nations mission was deployed to monitor the truce and prepare a referendum on Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco, but it never materialized.

Without waiting for the political compromise that the UN has been negotiating for decades, hotels have sprouted from the sand along the coast, and rows of streetlights on vacant lots announce future subdivisions. 

‘Good communication’ –

“The secret to success is to develop kitesurfing with good communication focused on the organisation of non-political events,” said Driss Senoussi, head of the Dakhla Attitude hotel group. 

Accordingly, the exploits of kitesurfing champions like Brazilian Mikaili Sol and the Cape Verdian Airton Cozzolino were widely shared online during the World Kiteboarding Championships in Dakhla last month.

The competition seemed to hold little interest for Dakhla’s inhabitants however.

Only a few young people with nothing to do and strolling families found themselves on the beach for the finals.

Just as rare are the foreign tourists who venture into the town of 100,000 residents to shop.

A kitesurfer manoeuvring her kite at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara.
A kitesurfer manoeuvring her kite at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Like her friends, Alexandra Paterek prefers to stay at her hotel, some 30 kilometres (19 miles) from downtown. 

“Here is the best place in the world for learning kitesurfing,” said the 31-year-old Polish stewardess. 

On her understanding of the broader regional context, she said: “It’s an old Spanish colony and they have good seafood, for sure.”

Like many tourists, she was under the impression that the area belonged to Morocco, as the destination tends to be marketed in the travel industry as “Dakhla, Morocco”.

That angers the Polisario, which wants independence for the disputed region and tried last year in vain to sue businesses it said were “accomplices to the occupying military power.”

The independence movement is now focused on challenging commercial deals between Morocco and the European Union that involve Western Sahara, according to the group’s French lawyer Gilles Devers.

Moroccan authorities are looking actively for investors for their development projects on the west coast, the most ambitious being the Dakhla Atlantique megaport with a budget of about $1 billion to promote fishing. 

Environmental concerns –

On the lagoon, surrounded by white sand and with its holiday bungalows, “there is a struggle between developing aquaculture and tourism,” said a senior regional representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

“One has less impact on the environment, but the other generates more revenue and jobs,” said the representative, adding that “pressure from real-estate investors is very high.”

With the influx of tourists, the protection of the environment has become a major concern.

“Everything is developing so quickly… we need to recycle plastic waste and resolve the issue of wastewater,” said Rachid Roussafi. 

Read: Plastic in crosshairs at UN environment forum

Daniel Bellocq, a retired French doctor, worries for the future of this lagoon, that was “once so wild” that he has kitesurfed in for 20 years.

“There is green algae that weren’t there before, it’s becoming a septic tank,” he said.

Regional councillor Cherif, though, insists the bay is clean, saying: “All the hotels are equipped with wastewater management systems.”

For him, the real threat is from plastic waste, whether it is dropped by tourists or brought by sea currents. 

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