The so-called “Millennium Man” was one of the most exciting fossil human finds of recent years. So-called because it was discovered in 2000, the Millennium Man is said to be one of those important pieces of the puzzle in understanding human evolution.
In 2001 the fossilized remains of mankind’s earliest known ancestor, surpassing predating previous discoveries by more than 1.5million years, were discovered in East Africa.
Millennium Man, as the apeman was named, was unveiled by a team of French and Kenyan paleontologists from the Kenya Palaeontology Expedition, who had unearthed remains from at least five males and females.
About the size of a chimpanzee, Millennium Man showed characteristics that would not only allow it to walk on the ground but also to feel at home in the trees.
An almost perfectly fossilized left femur shows the creature had strong back legs, letting it stand erect. But a thick right humerus bone, from the upper arm, suggests it also had tree-climbing skills, though probably not enough to swing from limb to limb.
But it is the teeth and jaw that most clearly links Millennium Man to modern humans, according to Dr. Brigitte Senut, a team member from the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The ape-man had small canines and full molars, similar to modern man, suggesting a diet of mainly fruit and vegetables, but also occasional meat-eating.
Although the age of the remains has not been accurately established, the strata of earth from which they were recovered were dated by independent teams from Japan, to six million years.
The first bones were found in the Tugen Hills of the Baringo county, around 150miles north-east of the capital Nairobi, on Oct 25, 2001.
The finding was not announced in a scientific journal but a press conference, so it has not been reviewed by peers. But if confirmed, it could push back the hotly disputed origins of many be around two million years.
Dr. Martin Pickford, a paleontologist with the KPE team, said: “Not only is this find older than any previously known, but it is also in a more advanced stage of evolution. It is at least six million years old, which means it is older than the [previously oldest] remains found at Aramis in Ethiopia, which were 4.5 million years old.”
The skeleton of Australopithecus Afarensis – known as Lucy – found in 1974, is believed to have lived around 3.2 million years ago.
Thorough analysis is needed but, if confirmed, it would add greatly to evidence for this era in human prehistory, which consists of a handful of bones and teeth. Dr. Mark Collard, of University College London, said: “This is terribly exciting.”
He said the dating fits predictions of when the common ancestors of chimpanzees and humans lived, between five million and eight million years ago, made by comparing ape and human DNA.
Dr. Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum said although there would be debate over whether Millennium Man lay on the evolutionary path to humans, chimpanzees, or is an evolutionary dead end, so few remains had come from this period that it would be significant in any event.
Dr. Pickford and Dr. Senut said they were confident the team would unearth more, possibly older remains.
Dr. Pickford said teeth marks were found on one of the femur bones. He added: “It looks like he was killed or eaten by some sort of carnivore, probably a cat.”
Below are some of the still unanswered questions about Orrorin Tugenensis that may be answered with future discoveries:
Is Orrorin a direct human ancestor to Homo sapiens? If so, does this make Au. Afarensis a side branch of our of hominin family tree that eventually hit a dead-end? Did Orrorin routinely walk on two legs? Orrorin’s fossil evidence indicates that Orrorin was possibly capable of bipedalism, but not necessarily that Orrorin routinely walked bipedally. How did bipedalism originate? One hypothesis suggests early apes walked on branches while using their arms for balance and this technique eventually made its way to the ground. What is the relationship between this species and Sahelanthropus Tchadensis, the other current contender for the title of earliest human?
Pickford, M., Senut, B., 2001. ‘Millennium Ancestor’, a 6-million-year-old bipedal hominid from Kenya – Recent discoveries push back human origins by 1.5 million years. South African Journal of Science 97, 22-22.