Opinion

Alas, poor MRD

Alas, poor MRD

The fantastically named Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the University of Cleveland, who has unearthed an almost perfectly preserved skull of an ancestor of Lucy, has boggled the minds of his peers and uprooted the carefully manicured timeline of the human race. Because while traditional thinking suggests that each species bowed off the Darwinian stage in favour of a more evolved descendant, stratigraphic dating of the new skull discovered in Ethiopia suggests that the species shared the world with its descendant Lucy for at least 1,00,000 years. Perhaps they shared families, too.

Let’s get the problem pegged out neatly. Lucy is an Australopithecus, of the genus from which our own line of Homo is descended. She is properly known as Australopithecus afarensis, and was named Lucy because when her fossilised bones were brought into camp in the mid-70s, they were playing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. In the taxonomic literature, she is unglamorously known as AL 288-1, but she had galvanised the scientific community when her age was determined — 3.2 million years. But she was not the first of her genus to be discovered. That honour goes to Raymond Dart’s Tuang Baby, formally Australopithecus africanus, aged 2.8 million years, who was found 95 years ago. And now we have its grandparent and Lucy’s ancestor, Australopithecus anamensis, aged between 4.1 and 3.6 million years. Three generations of the pre-human family etched in stone.

Time wages a relentless war of attrition with identity, and the oldest member of a family is often nameless. He is just Grandpa. Following this unkind tradition, no one has named the new find. The literature records it only as MRD. But this old codger has rattled our cage, and our evolution is no longer a linear transition from MRD to Lucy to the Taung Baby, and finally to us.