Digital reconstruction of Ardipithecus ramidus modeled in resin.
In the Afar desert of Ethiopia, there are a lot of ways to die. There is disease, of course. One can also perish from wild animal attack, snakebite, falling off a cliff, or in a shoot-out between one of the Afar clans and the Issa people across the Awash River to the east.
But life is fragile all over Africa. What is special here is the occasional durability of the deceased’s remains. The Afar Basin sits smack atop a widening rip in the Earth’s crust. Over time, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the slow accumulation of sediments have conspired to bury bones and then, much later, disgorge them to the surface as fossils. The process is ongoing. In August 2008 a young boy was taken by a crocodile in Yardi Lake, in an area of the Afar known as the Middle Awash. Three months later, Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, stood at the lakeshore near where the child had died. Blanketed by lake sediments, he said, the boy’s bones had a decent chance of becoming fossils someday too. “People have been dying out here for millions of years,” said White. “Occasionally we get lucky and find what’s left .”
The Middle Awash research project, which White co-directs with his Ethiopian colleagues Berhane Asfaw and Giday WoldeGabriel, announced its greatest good fortune last October: the discovery, 15 years earlier, of the skeleton of a member of our family that had died 4.4 million years ago at a place called Aramis, less than 20 miles north of today's Yardi Lake. Belonging to the speciesArdipithecus ramidus, the adult female—"Ardi" for short—is more than a million years older than the famous Lucy skeleton and much more informative about one of evolution's holy grails: the nature of the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees. In the mediaphilic field of paleoanthropology, it has become almost a reflex to claim that one's new find "overturns all previous notions" of our origins. Tim White despises such hyperbole. But in Ardi's case, it seems to be true.