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Culture & Tourism

Discovery of ancient skull in Ethiopia unearths new clues on human evolution

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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Namibia threatens to withdraw from global wildlife pact

Countries party to the CITES subsequently voted against demoting Namibia’s white rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II

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Namibia threatens Withdrawal from CITES

Namibia may pull out from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) after countries voted to reject proposals to ease limitations on hunting and exporting its white rhinos.

“If CITES does not really help us to conserve our wild animals but frustrating those that are doing the good I think there is no need for us to stay in CITES,” the country’s environment minister, Pohamba Shifeta said.

Last week, Namibia put forward a proposal to allow more trophy hunting of rhinos and export of live animals saying that the money it would collect would help it to protect the species.

Countries party to the CITES subsequently voted against demoting Namibia’s white rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II. Appendix I is a list of species threatened with extinction while Appendix II is one of the species with looser protections.

“We had several submissions from SADC for downlisting our white rhino from appendix I to appendix II, but there are some who feel that Namibia’s population is still small and we contested that Namibia’s population is the second-largest in the world,” Shifeta said.

Namibia’s white rhino population stood at 1,037 in 2017/2018, according to estimates by the government. The populations of white rhinos in neighbouring South Africa and eSwatini are in Appendix I.

Members of the CITES also decided to impose a near-total ban on sending African elephants captured from the wild to zoos. The new resolution also means zoos will no longer be able to import wild-caught African elephants to the United States, China and many other countries beyond the elephants’ natural habitat.

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Culture & Tourism

‘Year of Return’ attracts African-American tourists to Ghana

A string of prominent African-Americans have headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing

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The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana

US preacher, Roxanne Caleb blinked away the tears as she emerged from a pitch-dark dungeon where African slaves were once held before being shipped across the Atlantic to America. 

“I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m heartbroken,” she told reporters as she toured the Cape Coast slave fort on Ghana’s ocean shore. 

“My mind still can’t wrap around the fact that a human being can treat another worse than a rat.”

Caleb is among the African-American visitors flocking to Ghana as it marks the “Year of Return” to remember the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing in Virginia.

The country is banking on the commemorations to give a major boost to the number of tourist arrivals as it encourages the descendants of slaves to “come home”.

Cape Coast Castle, 150 kilometres from the capital Accra, is a major magnet for those visiting 

The white-washed fort lined with cannons was one of the dozens of prisons studying the Atlantic coast where slaves were held before their journey to the New World.

A string of prominent African-Americans has headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing in 1619. Among them was a delegation of Congressional Black Caucus led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that toured last month.

The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast.
The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Can’t forget history’ –

For those visiting, it is an emotional rite of passage. 

“This has been understanding my history and my roots where I came from,” Caleb said.  

“I am very thankful I came here as part of the ‘Year of Return’.”

Sampson Nii Addy, a corrections officer with the Montgomery police department in Alabama, said he and his family had found the tour an “education”.

“I think every black person needs to come around to learn history; how people were treated,” the 52-year-old told reporters. 

“We can’t forget history but we can always learn something from it.”

Ghana, one of the continent’s most stable democracies, has long pitched itself as a destination for African-Americans to explore their heritage and even settle permanently.  

In 2009, President Barack Obama visited with his family and paid homage at the Cape Coast Castle. 

The “Year of Return” has added fresh impetus and the country is hoping it will increase visitor numbers from 350,000 in 2018 to 500,000 this year, including 45,000 African-Americans. 

Kojo Keelson has spent nine years guiding tour groups around the Cape Coast Castle and says 2019 has seen a surge in interest as Ghana looks to rake in tourism revenue of $925 million. 

“It’s like a pilgrimage. This year, we have a lot more African-Americans coming through than the previous year,” he told reporters.

“I’m urging all of them to come home and experience and reconnect to the motherland.”

Stairs next to the "Door of Return", the former "Door of no Return" of  the Cape Coast Castle
Stairs next to the “Door of Return”, the former “Door of no Return”. The Cape Coast Castle served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Love to come again’ –

Akwasi Awua Ababio, the official coordinating “Year of Return” events, pointed to high hotel occupancy rates as he said, “enthusiasm is very high and we’ve got huge numbers coming from the US and Caribbean”.

He insisted that beyond the major economic boost, Ghana was also looking to use the new connections it is forging to convince the descendants of slaves to resettle for good and help the country develop.

“Human resource is always an asset and we need to see how we can welcome them home to utilise their expertise and networks,” the director for diaspora affairs at the presidency said.

The African American Association of Ghana brings together those who have moved to West Africa and offers help to integrate them into their new surroundings.

President Gail Nikoi praised the “Year of Return” initiative by Ghanaian leader Nana Akufo-Addo and said the country was “setting the stage for future engagements and involvement of African-Americans and other Africans from the diaspora in the development of this country.”

But she said the authorities could still be doing more to help attract arrivals and convince them to stay.

“Dialogue and engagement is the first step,” she said.

While most of those visiting Cape Coast were not thinking about settling back permanently — they said the trip had opened their eyes to both their own history and what Ghana has to offer.

“It has broadened my horizons about how we came to be here and what our ancestors went through,” said William Shaw, 57, from Montgomery.

“I would love to come again. There is a lot more to see here in Ghana… at least once in a year, I’d advise African-Americans to come back to their native land and learn about their history.”

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