Virtually everyone with any access to news last week probably heard about Ardi, a 4.4 million year old skeleton of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia. However, given the tendency of the mainstream media to cover every ancient primate discovery as “Scientists discover ‘missing link’ which ‘changes everything'” those who don’t track these things can easily become confused, or even rather suspicious of the whole thing.
So, what is Ardi, and why is this discovery a big deal?
Ardi is a 45% complete skeleton of a female individual from the hominin species Ardipithecus ramidus. This is not a new species: we’ve known about Ardipithecus ramidus since a small number of bones from a member of the species was found in 1992 and formally described and named in 1994. Living about 4.4 million years ago, Ardipithecus ramidus is also not the oldest human ancestor known or a common ancestor between humans and our apparent closest genetic living relatives, the chimps. However, the excitement about Ardi (found along with less complete remains of a number of other Ardipithecus ramidus individuals and also fossil evidence about the plants and animals present in their environment) is not just hype. It is a very important find. Here’s why: