The remains of an ancient female were unearthed in 1994 in Ethiopia’s Afar depression, shedding new light on our understanding of human evolution.
Ardipithecus ramidus is a species name derived from “ramid” meaning “root,” displaying traits that were both primitive and hominid-like. Carbon dating put the “Ardi” find at 4.4 million years old, nearly a million years older than “Lucy,” believed until then to be the original “Eve” of humanity.
Like a hit song in the music charts, Lucy’s reign in the Anthropological Society’s limelight was quickly replaced by this more recent and much older discovery.
Ardi showed hardly any similarities to chimpanzee-like traits—giving credence to a theory long supported by Darwin and his followers that hominids and African apes have followed different evolutionary pathways, so we can no longer think of chimps as “proxies” for our last common ancestor.
Barely four feet in height, Ardi was bipedal on the ground but dexterous with all limbs in the trees. Her upper pelvic structure was developed for bipedal walking without the side-to-side swinging that are trademarks of chimpanzees and some apes.
On the other hand, Ardi’s lower pelvis bones shared a common structure with that of an ape’s, which made for more efficient climbing. She also had a toe that was separated from the rest, a trait shared with apes.
Yet, unlike apes, Ardi had acquired a tendon that made her feet more rigid and suitable for walking. Again, this trait is virtually non-existent in the lines of modern-day apes.
Ardi’s teeth showed a puzzling array of traits, too, that were a mix of early hominins and later hominids. For one, the male of her species displayed canine teeth that were smaller than those of apes.
Canine teeth, big ones, were great psychological and defensive weapons against rivals in claiming a potential mate. This shows the possibility of less male-to-male aggression over females in her species.
Ardi’s bipedal nature, in turn, proved to have been useful in attracting mates. Like some humans and Bonobo chimps, sexual loyalty or maybe even just pure sex might have been offered when food was provided. It enabled an Ardi male to gain favors and reproduction by providing food to his mate.
So is Ardi the infamous “missing link?” Probably not. The last common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees is thought to have lived six or more million years ago—long before Ardi’s time.
However, what makes Ardipithecus important is that she likely shared many of our common ancestor’s characteristics. The antiquity of Ardi has brought us closer to the still-elusive “last” common ancestor and shown that the missing link must be neither chimpanzee nor human but unique, like Ardi.
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