ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Scientists in northeastern Ethiopia said Saturday that they have discovered the skull of a small human ancestor that could be a missing link between the extinct Homo erectus and modern man.
The hominid cranium — found in two pieces and believed to be between 500,000 and 250,000 years old — "comes from a very significant period and is very close to the appearance of the anatomically modern human," said Sileshi Semaw, director of the Gona Paleoanthropological Research Project in Ethiopia.
Archaeologists found the early human cranium five weeks ago at Gawis in Ethiopia's northeastern Afar region, Sileshi said.
Sileshi, an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist based at Indiana University, said most fossil hominids are found in pieces but the near-complete skull — a rare find — provided a wealth of information.
"The Gawis cranium provides us with the opportunity to look at the face of one of our ancestors," the archaeology project said in a statement. "Additionally, this fossil links us with the past by showing a face that is recognizably different and more primitive than ours."
Homo erectus, which many believe was an ancestor of modern Homo sapiens, is thought to have died out 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.
The cranium dates to a time about which little is known — the transition from African Homo erectus to modern humans. The fossil record from Africa for this period is sparse and most of the specimens poorly dated, project archaeologists said.
The face and cranium of the fossil are recognizably different from that of modern humans, but it bears unmistakable anatomical evidence that it belongs to the modern human's ancestry, Sileshi said.
"The form of the face and the brain are among the best means for exploring the evolutionary path of humans and the Gawis cranium preserves both areas," according to the statement.