Analysis of a 3.3 million-year-old fossil skeleton reveals the most complete spinal column of any early human relative, including vertebrae, neck and rib cage. The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that portions of the human spinal structure that enable efficient walking motions were established millions of years earlier than previously thought.
The fossil, known as “Selam,” is a nearly complete skeleton of a 2.5-year-old child discovered in Dikika, Ethiopia in 2000 by Zeresenay (Zeray) Alemseged, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and senior author of the new study. Selam, which means “peace” in the Ethiopian Amharic language, was an early human relative from the species Australopithecus afarensis—the same species as the famous Lucy skeleton.
In the years since Alemseged discovered Selam, he and his lab assistant from Kenya, Christopher Kiarie, have been preparing the delicate fossil at the National Museum of Ethiopia. They slowly chipped away the sandstone surrounding the skeleton and used advanced imaging tools to further analyze its structure.
“Continued and painstaking research on Selam shows that the general structure of the human spinal column emerged over 3.3 million years ago, shedding light on one of the hallmarks of human evolution,” Alemseged said. “This type of preservation is unprecedented, particularly in a young individual whose vertebrae are not yet fully fused.”
Many features of the human spinal column and rib cage are shared among primates. But the spine also reflects humans’ distinctive mode of walking upright on two feet. For instance, humans have fewer rib-bearing vertebrae—bones of the back—than those of our closest primate relatives. Humans also have more vertebrae in the lower back, which allows them to walk effectively. When and how this pattern evolved has been unknown until now because complete sets of vertebrae are rarely preserved in the fossil record.