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The Paranthropes

There is therefore a chronological overlap between the oldest Paranthropes and the most recent Australopithecines, Australopithecus sediba having lived until 1.9 Ma, as well as with the Homo genus, which emerged around 2.8 – 2.5 Ma.

The Paranthropus genus is relatively easy to distinguish from other genera. Indeed, it is characterized by an extremely well-developed masticatory apparatus, with massive mandibles, very large premolars and molars, and very powerful masticatory muscles. In general, Paranthropes are characterized by great robustness.

A little history of science

Before going into more detail on the morphology of these 3 species, let’s take a look at the history of the Paranthropus genus. Indeed, the creation of the latter was not without its difficulties. The genus Paranthropus was first defined in 1938 by Robert Broom, following the discovery that same year of fossil remains at the Kromdaai site near Sterkfontein in South Africa. The adult male skull found was then described as Paranthropus robustus.

A few years later, in 1951, it was suggested (by Washburn and Patterson, to name but two) that the morphological differences observed between the genera Australopithecus and Paranthropus were not sufficient to justify the existence of a second genus, namely Paranthropus. A long debate within the scientific community then began on the scientific legitimacy of the genus Paranthropus.

The heart of the debate then lies in South Africa, where the Australopithecus africanus species is also present. For some scientists at the time, the particularly robust specimens (now P. robustus) were distinguished from the more graceful specimens (nowA. africanus ) also found in South Africa by a question of sexual dimorphism. So, still according to them, it’s a single species, A. africanus, with the robust individuals being the males and the more graceful individuals being the females. However, it soon becomes clear that all the gracile forms come from one and the same site, Sterkfontein, and that the same applies to the robust forms, which all come from the Swartkrans and Kromdraii sites!

What’s more, the fauna present in the Sterkfontein sedimentary fill is older and more archaic than that found at Swartkrans. This variation between the two deposits cannot therefore be the result of sexual variation, but most probably corresponds to species variation. However, some researchers decided to divide all the fossils into 2 species, Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus.

In East Africa, the first trace of Paranthropes was found in 1955 in Bed II of Olduvai (Tanzania) with the discovery of specimen OH3 (2 teeth, 1 deciduous canine and a molar) by the Leakeys. The taxonomy of this specimen remained uncertain until the 1959 discovery of a skull in Bed I of Olduvai (OH5), again by the Leakeys. For Louis Leakey, this skull differs from both Australopithecus and Paranthropus, creating a new genus, Zinjanthropus boisei. History repeats itself and in 1967, Tobias et al. consider Z. boisei to be an Australopithecus species and rename it Australopithecus boisei. The last Paranthropes species to be recognized was in 1968, under the name Paraustralopithecus aethiopicus (Arambourg and Coppens, 1968), the holotype being an adult mandible discovered in the Omo region (Ethiopia). Paraustralopithecus aethiopicus also became Australopithecus aethiopicus.

Thus, in the 1980s, the 3 current species of Paranthropes all belong to the Australopithecus genus. The name Paranthropus eventually came back into fashion following cladistic analyses demonstrating the monophyly (= 1 common ancestor) of the group formed by A. boisei, A. aethiopicus and A. robustus. It therefore seems more “logical” to group them together and separate them from Australopithecines. According to the principle of anteriority in nomenclature (to find out more, read this article), the name Paranthropus must be included.

Thus, A. boisei, A. aethiopicus andA. robustus are finally attached to the genus Paranthropus. Nevertheless, it should be noted that not all researchers agree with this, and some still use Australopithecus.

Morphological characteristics of Paranthropes

Let’s leave these epistemological debates for the moment and get back to the Paranthropes! These are classified into 3 species with different chronological extensions and geographical distributions:

  • Paranthropus aethiopicus was present in East Africa between 2.98-2.87 and 2.3 Ma
  • Paranthropus boisei was present in East Africa between 2.3 and 1.3 Ma
  • Paranthropus robustus was present in South Africa between 2.2 and 1.2 Ma

In terms of morphological characteristics, Paranthropes are characterized by extremely extensive development of the cranial superstructures. For example, males of all 3 species have a sagittal crest. The zygomatic arches are highly developed and set back from the skull. The face of Paranthropes is also wide and “hollow”, with significant alveolar prognathism, and they have no chin.

Paranthropes - Prehistory Travel
Figure 2: Cranial characteristics of Paranthropes. Paranthropus boisei, Wikipedia.

The mandibles are particularly thick and wide (much more so than in Australopithecines), and the molars are very large. Unlike Australopithecines, although they have very large premolars and molars, Paranthrope canines and incisors are small and frontally aligned. As for the skull, it features a strong post-orbital constriction (narrowing of the skull behind the orbits), a low cranial vault, a very narrow frontal bone, a cranial capacity (CC) of between 419-550 cm3 (chimpanzees have a CC of around 500 cm)3) and a thick supraorbital torus.

Paranthropes - Prehistory Travel
Figure 3: Cranial characteristics of Paranthropes. Paranthropus aethiopicus, specimen KNM-WT 17,000, Wikipedia.

There are some morphological differences between the three Paranthrope species. However, the distinction between them is also based on geographical areas and chronological extension.

Locomotion & habitats

Another interesting point about Paranthropes is their type of locomotion. It is also accepted that the latter were bipedal, with more efficient bipedalism than Australopithecines, most of whom were still arboreal. Nevertheless, their bipedalism differed from our own, as Paranthropes do not have exactly the same locomotor skeleton as we do. It is also proposed that, like Australopithecines, Paranthropes may have practiced arboricolism. It should be noted, however, that the question of locomotion in this group is highly debated, as very few postcranial remains have been found.

Finally, Paranthropes lived in open (savannah-type) or closed (forest canopy) environments. Contrary to what has long been believed because of their highly-developed masticatory apparatus, Paranthropes’ diet did not consist mainly of tough foods. This belief earned P. boisei the nickname “nutcracker” (OH5). The latter was in fact only an occasional user. In reality, the Paranthropes’ diet consisted mainly of plants.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to the genus Paranthropus! Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube!

We would like to thank paleoanthropologist François Marchal for reviewing the first version of this article.

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

[1] P. Constantino, B. Wood, “Paranthropus paleobiology”, In: Miscelanea en Homenaje a Emiliano Aguirre. Volumen III: Paleoantropologia, 2004.

[2] D. Grimaud-Hervé et al.Histoire d’ancêtres. La grande aventure de la PréhistoireErrances,5th edition, 2015.

[3] A. Rotman, “The Robust Australopithecines: evidence for the genus Paranthropus”, University of Western Ontario Journal of Anhtropology, 2011.

[4] C. Springer, P. Andrews, The complete world of Human evolution, ed. Thames & Hudson, 2011

[5] B. Wood, Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, Wiley-Blackwell. Reprinted edition (2013).

[6] B. Wood, P. Constantino, “Paranthropus boisei: Fifty years of Evidence and analysis”, Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 2007

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Prehistoric dating methods

General information on dating methods

It’s important to note that not all materials can be dated. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the types of materials that can be dated:

  • Carbonates
  • Fossils and paleontological remains
  • Sediments
  • Volcanic minerals
  • Wood charcoal
  • Minerals and rocks that have been heated

There are various dating methods, grouped into 4 main families. These methods are applicable to certain types of material only.

Figure 1: Different dating techniques divided into major methodological families.

Not all these methods can be applied to every object or site. This is because, in addition to the need to find datable material on site, the different methods don’t allow us to date the same time scale. For example, carbon-14 dating cannot be used to date artifacts older than 50,000 years.

The aim here is not to be exhaustive, but to present a few dating methods in greater detail.


This is probably the best-known dating method. It was developed in the 1940s-1950s.

How is carbon 14 formed?

Carbon 14 (or 14C) is a radioactive isotope of carbon naturally present in the upper atmosphere, where it rapidly converts to 14CO2. This 14CO2, in gaseous form, partially dissolves in seawater, where it is incorporated by certain marine organisms. For example, foraminifera use carbonates to build their shells. 14CO2 will also be incorporated by plants during photosynthesis, as well as by herbivores feeding on these plants. Finally, carnivores also incorporate 14Cvia the herbivores they hunt. So all living organisms made partly of carbon have a certain amount of 14C, including our species. The constant exchanges between an organism and its environment maintain a certain concentration of 14Cin each individual. When the organism dies, exchanges between it and its environment cease, as does the supply of 14C.

Figure 2: Carbon-14 cycle.

After the organism’s death, 14Cconcentration therefore decreases over time, over a period of 5730 years. This means that every 5,730 years, half the atoms of 14Cnaturally disintegrate.

However, beyond 50,000 years, the 14Cconcentration becomes too low for analysis.

So, if you discover a fossil dating back less than 50,000 years, it’s possible to estimate the remaining 14Cconcentration in the fossil and, consequently, determine the age of death of the individual using mathematical formulas.

These calculations depend on the 14Cconcentration in the atmosphere. However, this has not remained constant over time, and has varied over the last 50,000 years. As a result, calibration curves are now used to obtain as accurate an age range as possible. You will then see the notation cal BP, which stands for Before Present. At the time this dating method was being developed, nuclear tests were taking place, which altered the concentration of 14Cin the atmosphere. Consequently, it has been arbitrarily agreed that the present begins in…1950!

The different dating units


Dendrochronology involves analyzing the growth of trees by examining their rings. Indeed, in temperate regions characterized by seasonality, the tree produces an annual ring corresponding to its growth period. The size of this ring depends on environmental conditions. So, for example, the ring produced during a dry summer will be thinner than that produced during a rainy summer, since the drought will have hindered the tree’s growth. Throughout its life, a tree records environmental and climatic variations.

Figure 3: Diagram of a tree trunk cut across its width.

Based on this principle, by analyzing large numbers of wood rings, it is possible to create so-called “dendrochronological” time scales. This makes it possible to reconstruct the various climatic fluctuations recorded by the trees and to date them in time for each region. This work is carried out on a regional scale, as each region has specific tree species and climates.

When a piece of wood is found in an archaeological context where the tree rings are still visible, it is possible to match its climatic variation curve to the regional curve and thus date a piece of wood. In this way, we can assign a year to each ring in our archaeological tree.

Dendrochronological curves for dating wood found in archaeological contexts
Figure 4: Examples of dendrochronological curves.

Dendrochronology makes it possible to estimate ages ranging from the present to just over 10,000 years.

Paleomagnetism or sediment dating

There’s a magnetic field around the Earth that acts like a magnet. Over the course of our planet’s history, the orientation of this magnet has been reversed several times. At present, the magnetic field is oriented so that magnetic north corresponds approximately to the geographic north pole. The magnetic polarity is then said to be normal. On the other hand, when the magnetic field reverses and is oriented towards the south pole, we speak of reverse polarity. A chronology of these polarity changes has been established.

Paleomagnetic chronology for dating archaeologically-discovered sediments.
Figure 5: Paleomagnetic chronology.

Some rocks, such as magnetite (Fe2O3), are magnetic and act as a kind of compass, recording the polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field as they fossilize.

This chronology of variations in the polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field can be used to determine the age of sediments. For example, if sediments show reverse polarity, we know that they must be more than 780,000 years old, because the Brunhes period, which has normal polarity, began 780,000 years ago.

Paleomagnetism makes it possible to date current samples back several billion years.

We hope you enjoyed this introductory article on dating methods! Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

[1] Dominique Grimaud-Hervé et al.History of ancestors. The great adventure of prehistoryErrances,5th edition, 2015.

[2] Langouet L. and Giot P.-R., Dating the past. Measuring time in archaeology. GMPCA, Rennes, 1992.

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News 1 – Coal in the caves of the Dordogne!

Ina Reiche et al, “First discovery of charcoal-based prehistoric cave art in Dordogne”, Scientific reports, Nature, 22235 (2023).,cave%2C%20Dordogne%2C%20Southern%20France

A study published in December 2023 in the journal Nature brings great satisfaction to all specialists in cave art. It reveals the discovery of parietal paintings using charcoal in the Font-de-Gaume cave (Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne, France). The cave contains around 200 representations, two-thirds of which are animals and one-third geometric representations known as tectiforms. The majority of animal representations are of bison, followed by mammoths, deer and horses.

The importance of the presence of charcoal in the cave lies in the fact that, until now, it was assumed that Dordogne parietal paintings were made exclusively from mineral materials (iron oxides for red hues and manganese oxides for black hues). To date, however, it is impossible to carry out dating using mineral matter, hence the need for organic matter, i.e. charcoal.

The researchers used non-invasive physico-chemical analysis methods, such as Raman spectroscopy, to identify the presence of carbon in the paints without the risk of damaging them.

This exceptional discovery opens up the prospect of radiocarbon (carbon-14) dating of the Font-de-Gaume paintings, a first in the Dordogne. This would clarify the chronology of these works, currently dated to the Magdalenian period (around 19,000 – 12,500 B.C.).

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News 2 – Oral traditions dating back to prehistoric times

Duane Hamacher, et al, “The archaeology of orality: Dating Tasmanian Aboriginal oral traditions to the Late Pleistocene”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 159 (2023).

Is it possible to date the age of certain oral traditions dating back to prehistoric times? That’s what a study published in November 2023 in the Journal of Archaeological Science proposes!

Focusing on the Aboriginal peoples living in Australia, researchers have demonstrated that Tasmanian oral traditions date back at least to the end of the Late Pleistocene. The methodology adopted consisted in examining traditions describing natural phenomena, which were correlated with geological, paleoenvironmental and astronomical studies in order to retrace the events thus described.

Current archaeological evidence points to the arrival ofHomo sapiens in Australia at least 65,000 years ago. Our species would have reached Tasmania around 40,000 years ago, before it broke away from the Australian continent.

The study in question focuses on Palawa and Pakana oral traditions, which were documented in the 1830s. Of these traditions, two elements caught the researchers’ attention: the submergence of a land bridge linking Tasmania to Australia, and the mention of a particularly bright star at the celestial south pole.

Using bathymetry (a technique for measuring the depth and relief of the ocean) and topography, researchers have estimated that the land bridge mentioned in the legend refers to the Bassian land bridge. This was submerged by rising waters around 12,000 years ago, separating Tasmania from Australia. The star itself has been identified as Canopus. Researchers calculated its declination during the last precession to estimate when it was at its minimum, a position where it would have appeared particularly bright at the south celestial pole from Tasmania. This has been estimated at around 14,000 BC.

Thus, provided that these traditions accurately reflect events, this study indicates that Tasmanian oral traditions date back at least to the end of the Upper Pleistocene, between 12,000 and 14,000 years BC. This shows that oral traditions can be perpetuated over thousands of years, opening up new perspectives in what is known as oral archaeology.

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News 3 – Was the Shanidar Neanderthal really buried on a bed of flowers?

Chris O. Hunt et al, “Shanidar and his flowers? Reflections on the palynology of the Neanderthal ‘Flower Burial’ hypothesis”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 159 (2023).

The Shanidar site is well known in prehistory, being one of the earliest sites where Neanderthal burials have been unearthed, raising questions about possible symbolic practices on the part of Neanderthal Man. One particular burial, that of the male individual named Shanidar 4, raises questions, as according to researchers at the time, he was buried on a bed of flowers. This conclusion is based on the analysis of pollens taken from inside the tomb, belonging to different species of flowers currently present around the site.

However, a new palynological study (the study of pollen in archaeological contexts) published in November 2023 in the Journal of Archaeological Science calls this scenario into question.

Indeed, the researchers put forward several arguments against the idea of an individual being laid on a bed of flowers:

  • First of all, the different flower species identified are not present in the vicinity of the cave at the same time (at least not at present, and climatic and environmental conditions have changed little). Consequently, it seems unlikely that Neanderthal individuals could have collected these flowers and placed them in the burial site at the same time;
  • The burial site remained open for a year before being excavated, giving ample time for contemporary contamination by pollen from the surrounding flowers;
  • According to the researchers, the mixture of pollens is more likely the result of an accumulation by solitary bees, which accidentally deposited the pollen they were carrying in the soil. In fact, numerous bee burrows have been discovered in the cave floor.

Consequently, it seems unlikely that the presence of pollen in this burial is the result of a bed of flowers on which the Neanderthal individual would have been laid. This does not, however, detract from the archaeological importance of this burial site.

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Pleistocene Megafauna

It is important to note that these generalities cannot be applied in a perfectly uniform way to all regions of the world. Nevertheless, this introductory article is a first approach to the subject. Let’s start by defining the two terms that make up the title of this article: “Megafauna” and “Pleistocene“.

What does “Pleistocene Megafauna” mean?

Several definitions have been proposed for the term Megafauna . In 1989, PS. Martin proposes to group under this term animals which, when fully grown, exceed a mass of 100 pounds, or around 45 kilograms (abbreviated to kg). However, this definition has since been refined.

Indeed, herbivores tend to be larger than carnivores, as their size provides effective protection against the latter. Consequently, some researchers consider herbivores weighing between 45 and 999 kg to be “large” herbivores, and those weighing over 1 tonne to be “mega” herbivores.

Similarly, carnivores with a body mass of between 21.5 and 99 kg are “large” carnivores, and those with a mass of over 100 kg are considered “mega” carnivores.

The term Pleistocene refers to a geological epoch. This extends from 2.58 million years ago (later abbreviated to Ma) to 11,700 years BC. It thus predates the Holocene, the geological epoch in which we currently find ourselves.

The disappearance of Pleistocene Megafauna

The end of the Pleistocene was marked by a wave of extinctions of large mammals. Reptiles, birds, plants, invertebrates and small rodents were little affected. The same goes for marine animals.

If we look at America, Australia and Eurasia, we see that all mammals weighing over a tonne are disappearing, as are 80% of those weighing over 100 kg. In Europe, we can cite the disappearance of the cave bear around 26,000 / 15,000 BC, or the woolly mammoth around 3,000 BC. In North America, we can cite the disappearance of the giant beaver, Castoroides ohioensis, as well as that of Smilodon fatalis, a felid species, around 9,000 years ago.

Several factors may have contributed to this decline:

  • Changes in ecosystem structure due to climate change (the end of the Pleistocene was marked by the transition from an ice age to an interglacial period);
  • Increasing scarcity of food resources, due in particular to climatic and environmental variations. Moreover, we must not forget that the disappearance of certain herbivores may have caused the disappearance of certain carnivores that eat them;
  • Changes in population structure, particularly from a genetic point of view. Indeed, a reduction in population size leads to a loss of genetic diversity, making species more fragile in the face of environmental change, for example (less ability to “adapt”);
  • The expansion of certain species belonging to the Homo genus, leading to overhunting. However, care must be taken, as the predation pressure exerted by human groups can vary according to demographic, geographic and ecological parameters.

These different factors may have played a role in the extinction of the Megafauna. Bear in mind, however, that the reasons for the extinction of these large animals are still debated.

A few examples of species

The aim of this section is not to give you an exhaustive catalog of the Pleistocene Megafauna, but to introduce you to (or rediscover!) some of its members.

Smilodon populator The genus Smilodon was first described in 1841 by P.W. Lund. It was present in South America and became extinct around 10,000 years BC. The size of Smilodon populator is particularly impressive: between 1.8 and 2.3 metres long, with a height at the withers of 1.2 metres. Its body mass was between 220 and 400 kg, making it one of the largest cats ever to have existed. Its canine teeth could measure up to 28 cm in length. Smilodon populator lived in steppe, savannah and even forest environments. It most likely fed on large mammals.

Photograph of Smilodo populator, a member of the Pleistocene Megafauna.
Figure 1: Photograph of the skull of an individual belonging to the species Smilodon populator, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée – Paris 5e. Wikipedia

Megatherium americanum This fossil species was discovered in 1788 in Lujiin, Argentina. Living mainly in South America, individuals weighed around 4 tons, making this the largest species of sloth ever to have existed. Megatherium americanum was adapted to temperate, arid and semi-arid climates. This animal was herbivorous, consuming food of varying degrees of hardness.

Photograph of Megatherium americanum, a member of the Pleistocene Megafauna.
Figure 2: Photograph of a Megatherium americanum skeleton, Natural History Museum, London. Wikipedia.

Procoptodon goliah Procoptodon goliah, the largest kangaroo in the world, would have measured just over 2 meters in height and was probably 1.5 times heavier than today’s red kangaroo. It could be found in semi-arid climatic zones, such as sand dunes. However, specimens have also been found in mosaic landscapes ranging from savannah to sclerophyllous forest. This species fed on fairly tough leaves and stems, and was found on the Australian continent.

Figure 3: Photograph of a Procoptodon goliah skeleton. Wikipedia.

Coelodonta antiquitatis : Known as the woolly rhinoceros, this species was present in Eurasia. The individuals measured between 3.5 and 4 metres in length, with a height at the withers of between 1.6 and 2 metres. The total weight of a specimen must have been around 3 tons, and its fur was 15 cm thick to protect it from the cold. He was exclusively vegetarian and lived in the cold steppes, among grasses and herbs. This species of rhinoceros is unusual in that it has two horns!

Photograph of a woolly rhinoceros, a member of the Pleistocene Megafauna.
Figure 4 : Woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis Blumenbach, 1807). Stage: 370,000 – 10,000 years (Middle and Upper Pleistocene). Location: Yamalo-Nenetsky region, Siberia, Russia, Toulouse Museum. Wikipedia.

Megalocerus giganteus: This large cervid could reach 2.10 m at the withers, with antlers extending to 3.60 m. It was present from Ireland to Siberia. The immense size of the woods probably made it impossible for him to live and move around in a dense forest environment. It lived in an open environment with wooded areas, like the great plains of Eurasia.

Figure 5: Photograph of the skeleton of a Megaloceros giganteus , National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C. © Wikipedia.

We hope you found this article interesting. Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok!

We would like to thank Stéphane Péan, archaeozoologist, for proofreading the first version of this article. Any remaining errors or inaccuracies are our fault.

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

Anon (n. d.) – – The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives – An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History – Anton, Mauricio – Books, [Accédé le 29 mars 2023].

Anon (2017) – Quaternary Extinctions, UAPress. [Accédé le 29 mars 2023].

Bargo M.S. (2001) – The ground sloth Megatherium americanum: skull shape, bite forces, and diet, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 46, 2.

Boeskorov G.G. (2012) – Some specific morphological and ecological features of the fossil woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis Blumenbach 1799), Biology Bulletin, 39, 8, p. 692-707.

Fortin Corinne, Guillot Gérard, Le Louarn Bonnet Marie Laure, Lecointre Guillaume (2009) – Guide critique de l’évolution, Edition BELIN.

Lister A.M., Edwards C.J., Nock D. a. W., Bunce M., van Pijlen I.A., Bradley D.G., Thomas M.G., Barnes I. (2005) – The phylogenetic position of the ‘giant deer’ Megaloceros giganteus, Nature, 438, 7069, pp. 850-853.

Malhi Y., Doughty C.E., Galetti M., Smith F.A., Svenning J.-C., Terborgh J.W. (2016) – Megafauna and ecosystem function from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 4, pp. 838-846.

News O.H. 10am-5pm M.-S. 10am-9pm W.C.C.D.A. 1 W.S.S.N. 2010 A.P. +61 2 9320 6000 www australian museum C.© 2023 T.A.M.A. 85 407 224 698 V.M. (n. d.) – Procoptodon goliah, The Australian Museum. [Accédé le 29 mars 2023].

Stuart A.J., Kosintsev P.A., Higham T.F.G., Lister A.M. (2004) – Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth, Nature, 431, 7009, p. 684-689.

Stuart A. (2004) – The extinction of large mammals, [Accédé le 4 décembre 2023].

Werdelin L., McDonald H.G., Shaw C.A. (2018) -Smilodon: The Iconic Sabertooth, JHU Press, 241 p.

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Australopithecines, what does that mean?

The term Australopithecus refers to a group of individuals that vary greatly in size and morphological conformation. In reality, Australopithecus is an informal group, as it is not monophyletic (a group with a single common ancestor) but paraphyletic (a group with several common ancestors). For this reason, they may not all belong to the same genre. In fact, one of them has been classified in the genus Kenyanthropus. Although all other species are currently classified within the Australopithecus genus, this has not yet stabilized and could change in the future. The problem lies in the extreme difficulty of diagnosing kinship links between different Australopithecus species using cladistic analyses. As a result, until such time as this fine-tuned classification of Australopithecines is obtained, which could enable some of them to be grouped into different clades, and therefore different genera, paleoanthropologists are leaving (almost) all Australopithecines within the Australopithecus genus for the sake of convenience. Nevertheless, they are fully aware of the group’s paraphilia and, therefore, of the artificiality of the genre.

The earliest Australopithecines are dated at just over 4 million years (later abbreviated to Ma) and their chronological extension extends to around 1.9 Ma. This group has lived exclusively in Africa.

A little history of science

Australopithecus is one of the longest known genera. Indeed, the first Australopithecus was discovered in 1924 (almost 100 years ago!) in South Africa by Raymond Dart. This is Taung’s child. Dart named the species Australopithecus africanus in his 1925 publication.

Skull of an Australopithecus - Australopithecus africanus
Figure 1: Photograph of a cast of the skull of Taung’s child, Australopithecus africanus. Institute of Human Paleontology.

Subsequently, other fossil sites were discovered, again in South Africa, then, from the late 1950s, also in East Africa. Among the most important discoveries, you’ll probably be familiar with Lucy, a female australopithecine discovered by Maurice Taieb, Donald Johanson and Yves Coppens in 1974, who is related to the species Australopithecus afarensis.

At first, Taung’s child was not recognized as a human ancestor by almost all scientists for many years. It was only after the Second World War that the Australopithecus (he and other fossils discovered after him in South Africa) were consensually recognized as the most distant direct ancestors of man known at the time. Nevertheless, we now know that Australopithecines are not the ancestors ofHomo sapiens, but simply a line of Hominins.

The different species of Australopithecus

The multiplication of discoveries will lead to an explosion in the number of species. There are currently nine. Here they are:

  • Australopithecus anamensis: 4.2 – 3.8 Ma (Ethiopia, Kenya)
  • Australopithecus afarensis : 3.7 – 3 Ma (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania)
  • Australopithecus prometheus : 3.67 – 3 Ma (Sterkfontein, South Africa)
  • Australopithecus deyiremeda : 3.5 – 3.3 Ma (Ethiopia)
  • Kenyanthropus platyops : approx. 3.5 – 3.2 Ma (Kenya)
  • Australopithecus bahrelghazali : 3.5 – 3 Ma (Chad)
  • Australopithecus africanus : 3 – 2.5 Ma (South Africa)
  • Australopithecus garhi : 2.5 Ma (Ethiopia)
  • Australopithecus sediba : 2 Ma (South Africa)
Australopithecines in Africa
Figure 2: Geographical distribution of Australopithecus species. 1= Awash Valley. 2 = Lake Turkana. 3 = East Africa. 4 = Cradle of Humankind, South Africa.

All these specimens were mainly found in three regions:

  • Gauteng province (South Africa)
  • Lake Turkana Basin (East Africa)
  • Awash Valley (East Africa)

The deposits in these three regions account for 95% of the fossils found in Africa, even though they correspond to very small areas on the scale of the African continent. Bear in mind, therefore, that we are working with partial and highly localized information.

What are the main anatomical features of Australopithecines?

Australopithecines have a cranial capacity of between 380 and 500 cm3. The skull is low and elongated. The part of the skull just behind the eye sockets is very tight; the post-orbital constriction is said to be strong. The frontal bone is narrow and tapers backwards. Above the orbits, there is a postorbital torus, i.e. a bony thickening. This varies from one Australopithecus species to another.

Cranial characteristics of Australopithecines
Figure 3: Cranial anatomical features of an Australopithecus africanus (Sts 5). José Braga, Didier Descouens, Wikipedia.

The face shows significant subnasal prognathism, i.e. forward projection of the face, mainly in the maxilla.

On the face, the zygomatic arches project to the sides. They are large and massive, indicating a strong masticatory force.

Cranial anatomy of Australopithecines
Figure 4: Cranial anatomical features of an Australopithecus africanus (Sts 5). José Braga, Didier Descouens, Wikipedia.

The mandible is massive, with a fairly high, thick mandibular body. The symphysis, where the two hemi-mandibles fuse, is more or less receding towards the back.

When it comes to teeth, there are major differences between species, as well as between males and females. Overall, you can see that molars are large. The canine teeth are smaller than those of chimpanzees, resulting in a gradual reduction in diastema (space between canine and incisor), until they disappear completely in some species.

3D modeling of the KNM-KP 29281 mandible belonging to an Australopithecus anamensis.
Figure 5: 3D modeling of the KNM-KP 29281 mandible from an Australopithecus anamensis. ©AfricanFossils.

Australopithecine modes of locomotion

The upper limbs are longer than the lower ones, but it’s difficult to say more because the species in this genus are so different in size and conformation. Nevertheless, these proportions are similar to those found in chimpanzees. This suggests that Australopithecines were still climbing trees to get around. Nevertheless, they were also capable of bipedal movement, although their bipedalism bears no resemblance to our own. To find out more about the skeletal adaptations required for bipedalism, we invite you to read this article. Australopithecines were very diverse in terms of their locomotor apparatus, and did not all use the same mode of locomotion.

We would like to thank paleoanthropologist François Marchal for reviewing the first version of this article.

We hope you find this introduction to the Australopithecus genus interesting! Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

[1] Dominique Grimaud-Hervé et al.History of ancestors. The great adventure of prehistoryErrances,5th edition, 2015.

[2] B. Wood, Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, Wiley-Blackwell. Reprinted edition (2013).

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The species does not exist

Where does the term species come from?

The term species comes from Latin and means “appearance, aspect, type”. So, at first glance, a species refers to a group of individuals or objects with physical similarities. As early as 1734, Réaumur, a French physicist and naturalist, defined species as “all living beings, bodies, substances, figures or geometric shapes with similar properties” [9].

In the 18th century, European naturalists embarked on voyages across all oceans and continents, discovering hitherto unknown animals and plants. It then becomes essential for them to classify and name them. At that time, species classification was based mainly on physical criteria. These observations are therefore subject to a certain degree of subjectivity, as the perception of what is similar or different sometimes varies considerably from one observer to another. As a result, some species are given not only several names, but also different denominations in different languages.

Carl von Linné established the species as the basic heading of his classification system. In 1758, in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae, he created the species Homo sapiens (our species) and classified it in the primate order. Linnaeus’ classification system is still in use today, although many corrections have been made to his original classification.

For Linnaeus, classification was simply a means of making the divine plan of creation intelligible, without any idea of evolution. In his view, “there are as many species as the Infinite Being produced forms in the beginning” [6]. Linné had a static vision of species, based mainly on morphological criteria.

How do you name a species?

During the 20th century, international botanical and zoological congresses sought to eliminate the confusion caused by the multiple names given to species and thus establish a nomenclature. According to this code, the name of a species is composed of the name of the genus, beginning with a capital letter, followed by the qualifier of the species, which begins with a lower case letter, followed by the initials or abbreviation of the name of its discoverer. Genus and species names are always written in italics.

ex: Homo sapiens -> Homo = genus, sapiens = species.

In addition, the principle of seniority has been established, meaning that the first name given to the species is the one that will always be retained. A species can change genus, but its name must remain.

e.g. Pithecanthropus erectus, which became Homo erectus.

Species definitions

From a classification point of view, the species represents the smallest entity, just above the individual. Nevertheless, many definitions of “this smallest entity” are proposed.

Classification of the living world with the species at the end
Figure 1: Classification system for the living world.

With Darwin, the static conception of the species as conceived by Linnaeus is no longer adequate. Indeed, according to Darwin and his book The Origin of Species (1859), the classification of organisms should reflect their evolutionary history.

Thus, at the end of the 19th century, the species can no longer be considered as fixed, perfectly defined, with immutable borders, existing since ever and for ever since :

– Species evolve(click here to read our article on evolution)

– More and more fossil species are being discovered- Species contours are difficult to establish in both space and time

From the twentieth century onwards, numerous definitions of the term species have emerged.

For example, in 1937, Theodosius Dobzhansky, biologist, geneticist and evolutionary theorist, was the first to propose a biological definition of species. According to him, a species corresponds to “the stage in an evolutionary process where several groups that were previously in an interbreeding relationship […] separate into at least two distinct groups, between which there can no longer be any interbreeding” [3] . Here, the term interbreeding is to be understood as interfertility. However, this definition has been criticized because it describes the mechanisms of speciation rather than what a species is in itself.

This has given rise to many other concepts of the species, such as the ecological concept of the species. This defines a species in terms of its ecological niche, i.e. the set of environmental conditions in which it lives and perpetuates itself.

In 1942, Ernst Mayr, ornithologist, biologist and geneticist, proposed a definition of biological species directly related to that proposed by Dobzhansky, and which is still taught in schools today. To do this, he relies on the criterion of interfertility. The idea is simple: if living beings can reproduce and produce fertile offspring, then they belong to the same species.

However, the definition of a species is not quite so simple. The interfertility criterion poses several problems. For example, this is not a truly operational criterion, as we can never really verify this inter-fertility, notably because of the geographical and temporal dimensions that we cannot “control”.

For example, until recently we thought that polar bears and grizzly bears couldn’t hybridize and produce fertile offspring, but that’s not the case! Indeed, due to global warming, these two species are increasingly crossing paths in the environment, and the hybrids born of these encounters (called grolars or pizzlies) are indeed fertile! Does this mean that polar bears and grizzly bears are the same species? No, this would mean wiping out thousands of years of separate evolution resulting in genetic, morphological and other differences between the two species.

Since then, other definitions have been formulated, such as the ecological species (Andersson, 1990) or the genetic species (Mallet, 1995). In 1997, R.L. Mayden listed at least 22 different concepts of species.

Why several definitions for a single “reality”?

The reason we find it so hard to agree on a single definition of species is quite simply that species does not intrinsically exist in nature. There are only notions or concepts of what a species might be. Indeed, the desire to name and categorize the world is something unique to us humans. The notion of species was therefore invented to help categorize living things into different boxes such as kingdom, order, family, etc. But in nature, there are only individuals. Whether you call the flower in your garden a “dandelion” or a “daisy” makes no difference to this individual, who will continue to exist no matter what you call him. So the concept of species is a human invention. However, nature is far more complex than simply classifying living things into distinct categories.

Living things are constantly evolving, but they also have unique intra-specific characteristics. There may also be other types of major differences within a single species, such as sexual dimorphism. For example, in great apes such as gorillas, there are significant differences between males (presence of a sagittal crest) and females (absence of a sagittal crest).

Beyond intra-species differences, it can sometimes be difficult to determine the degree of difference at which a species is considered to be different.

How can the notion of species be used in paleoanthropology?

How can we distinguish between different species on the basis of fossil remains that are often fragmentary and badly damaged? This question is still at the heart of debates within the paleoanthropology community.

When studying fossils, certain criteria cannot be verified, such as inter-fertility, which Ernst Mayr has been criticized for. As a result, morphological characteristics are most often used to define a species. This list of characters is called a “diagnose”. It is based on a fossil chosen as a reference, called the “holotype”. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to draw the line when integrating or rejecting a trait for a species.

Revolutionary concepts of the species were born to alleviate this problem. This is the case, for example, of paleontologist and evolutionary systematist Georges Gaylord Simpson, who defines a species as a phyletic lineage evolving independently of others, with its own distinct and unitary evolutionary roles and tendencies.

However, evolution is a slow process, taking place over many millions of years, so the morphological traits studied don’t change all at once. It takes several thousand years for the characteristics of a species to appear and become permanently fixed in the population. A striking example isHomo neanderthalensis. In fact, the first Neanderthal-type morphological features appeared as early as around 300,000 years ago in certain populations known as pre-Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the full range of morphological features specific to Neanderthal were present around 140,000 years ago, by which time the species Homo neanderthalensis was considered to have existed. Nevertheless, should we consider pre-Neanderthal populations as already being in some way Neanderthals or as belonging to another species, Neanderthal’s ancestor?

Moreover, it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between sexual dimorphism and morphological variation within what we consider a species, or a different species. We then subjectively choose to set limits to define species by including or excluding certain fossils, and these choices can also evolve over time.

At the end of the 20th century, Cracraft (1983) formulated the phylogenetic concept of the species in order to overcome the difficulties outlined above. According to him, the species is the smallest diagnosable group of individual organisms within which there is a parental pattern of ancestry and descent. In 1990, Nixon & Wheeler reformulated Cracraft’s definition: “the smallest aggregation of populations (sexual) or lineages (asexual) that can be diagnosed by a unique combination of character states in comparable individuals (semaphoronts = an organism as seen in a certain period of time, however brief, but not a snapshot). A character state is an attribute inherited from a common ancestor and present in all comparable individuals”.

How does paleoanthropology work in practice?

At present, the definition of the species remains as vague as ever. However, the only concept of species that can be tested and falsified is the phylogenetic concept, even though it has been much criticized for the taxonomic inflation it engenders, i.e. the creation of additional distinct species and genera.

Nevertheless, the phylogenetic concept of the species is the only one that can test and prove the existence of an evolutionary lineage.

In paleoanthropology, the specimens studied are fossils. Thus, the distinction between species is necessarily based on morphological and possibly genetic characteristics. This is part of the paleontological concept of the species.

Nevertheless, we must be careful not to mix up the different concepts, especially when trying to apply biological concepts to fossil species, such as the criterion of inter-fertility. For example, Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis are two different “paleontological” species. Once again, this does not rule out the possibility of hybridization between the two species! However, to lump them together as a single species would be to overlook their separate evolutionary histories.

In conclusion, it’s important to remember that if everything has the same name, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to study evolutionary histories. Taxonomy and classification in themselves are artificial constructs. Only phylogeny, the history of life, has a biological reality. However, to study phylogeny, it is necessary to assign names to the entities under study. At the end of the day, the name doesn’t really matter. The most important thing is to describe the people you’re talking about in such a way that everyone, whatever they call them, can understand what you’re talking about.

We hope you found this article interesting. If you have any questions or comments, we’d be delighted to hear from you. You can also contact us by email. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube .

Bibliography :

[1] Arnould P., ” Biodiversité : la confusion des chiffres et des territoires “, Annales de géographie, vol. 651, no. 5, 2006, pp. 528-549.

[2] Buffon G., Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. Tome II, 1749.

[3] Darwin C., On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, ed. orginale 1859, 2022, éditions Flammarion.

[4] Dreuil D., “Theodosius Dobzhansky”, in P. Tort (ed.), Dictionnaire du darwinisme et de l’évolution, PUF, 1996, tome 1, p. 1239-1255.

[5] Gontier T., Animal et animalité dans la philosophie de la Renaissance et de l’Age Classique, Éditions de l’Institut supérieur de philosophie, 2005.

[6] Linné C., Genera plantarum eorumque characteres naturales secundum nuemrum, figuram, situm & proportionem omnium fructificationes partiums, 1737.

[7] Linné C. Systema Naturae, 1758.

[8] Mayden R.L., “A hierarchy of species concepts: the denouement in the saga of the species”, in M. F. Claridge, H. A. Dawah, M. R. Wilson, Species: The units of diversity, London, Chapman & Hall, 1997, pp. 381-423.

[9] Réaumur, Insectes, Premier discours, Second mémoire, 1734, page 52, in Gallica

[10] Reed, et al, “Hominin nomenclature and the importance of information systems for managing complexity in paleoanthropology”, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 175, 2023.

[11] Simpson, Wiley, Systematic Biology, Volume 27, Issue 1, March 1978, Pages 17-26,

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The Lomekwien

industrie lithique

What is Lomekwien?

In 2011, the West Turkana Archaeological Project (WTAP) team began archaeological excavations at the Lomekwi site. This site is located in the Nachukui formation, west of Lake Turkana in Kenya (Africa).

Figure 1: Map of Africa with the location of the Lomekwi site.

During excavations carried out in 2011, the team discovered lithic artifacts in the Lomekwi 3 locality. Continuing their work in 2012, the researchers unearthed a total of 149 lithic pieces. This lithic assemblage is dated at 3.3 million years (later abbreviated to Ma). It comprises 83 shaped tools, 35 flakes, 7 passive elements or potential anvils, 7 strikers, 5 shaped pebbles and 12 undetermined lithic artefacts. This discovery was published in 2015 in the journal Nature.

Figure 2: Photographs of some of the lithic pieces found at Lomekwi 3. Nucleus (A), anvil (B) and shine (C). AfricanFossils.

The lithic pieces found at Lomekwi stand out for their large size and volume. Indeed, the largest tools can weigh up to 15 kg! Most of these tools show traces of percussive shaping on a platform. Following their discovery, an experimental program was set up to determine more precisely how they were manufactured. During the experiments, the researchers used the same raw material as that found at Lomekwi, so as not to skew the results. These experiments showed that the tools were manufactured using passive percussion techniques on anvil and/or bipolar.

Figure 3: Diagrams showing passive anvil percussion (the block to be split is struck directly onto a block of very hard material called an anvil) and bipolar percussion (the block to be split is placed on an anvil and then struck by a hand-held striker).

All the lithic pieces found at Lomekwi have features indicating deliberate cutting by human hands.

The study carried out by the WTAP team shows that these tools are different from the later cultures already known. Consequently, a new term, “Lomekwien”, is proposed to designate this new lithic industry, in reference to the place where it was discovered. The Lomekwian began at around 3.3 Ma and ended with the onset of the Oldowayen, at around 2.6 Ma. This lithic industry is unique to Africa. If you’d like to find out more about the different chronocultures in Africa, we invite you to read this article.

The new questions raised by this discovery

The Lomekwien discovery pushes back the age of the first carved tools by almost 700,000 years. Indeed, the oldest known artifacts were dated at around 2.6 Ma for the Gona site, 2.36 Ma for the Hadar site and 2.34 Ma for the Omo site in Ethiopia.

Figure 5: Location of sites where some of the oldest tools carved before the discovery of Lomekwien were found.

These dates coincided with the existence of the Homo genus, which appeared around 2.8 Ma in Africa. However, Lomekwian tools dating from 3.3 Ma completely call into question this link between the Homo genus and toolmaking. Indeed, the first species to be included in the Homo genus, discovered in 1964 by Louis and Mary Leakey, was named Homo habilis, meaning “skilled man”. This name thus underlines the supposed link between the Homo genus and toolmaking, considered at the time to be specific to our genus. However, the discovery of the Lomekwien definitely casts doubt on this hypothesis. We do not know the author of the Lomekwien, but its discovery was made in the same geographical and chronological zone where the Kenyanthropus platyops species was found.

Kenyanthropus platyops, the potential artisan of Lomekwien

The fossil remains of Kenyanthropus platyops were discovered in 1998 and 1999 at the Lomekwi site, west of Lake Turkana in Kenya. They are dated between 3.5 and 3.3 Ma, and the species was officially described in 2001. The holotype of K. platyops is a skull (KNM-WT 40000) that raises many questions. Indeed, it displays a unique combination of archaic characters, bringing it closer to Australopithecines, and derived characters, similar to those observed in later Hominins. The morphology of the face is particularly remarkable, being flat and projecting very little forward, in contrast to what can be observed in the Australopithecus genus, which lived between 4.2 and 1.9 Ma in Africa.

The species name “platyops” comes from the Greek “platus” meaning flat and “opsis” meaning face. So, although Kenyanthropus platyops is currently attached to the Australopithecines, its phylogenetic position remains debated.

We hope you enjoyed this article! Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

[1] Dominique Grimaud-Hervé et al.History of ancestors. The great adventure of prehistoryErrances,5th edition, 2015.

[2] Sonia Harmand et al, “3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya”, Nature | 310, vol. 521, 2015.

[3] Meave G. Leakey, “New hominin genus from eastern Africa shows diverse middle Pliocene lineages”, Nature, vol. 410, 2001.

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The Ötzi mummy is back in the news!

Wang et al., “High-coverage genome of the Tyrolean Iceman reveals unusually high Anatolian farmer ancestry”, Cell Genomics 3, 100377, August 2023.

Une nouvelle étude du génome d’Ötzi vient d’être publiée dans la revue Cell Genomics ! Cette étude remet en question certains résultats obtenus lors d’une précédente étude génétique réalisée en 2012.

Depuis 2012, les techniques et méthodes d’analyses ont évolué et permettent désormais de séquencer de manière plus fiable de l’ADN ancien, où les problèmes de conservation et contamination limitent souvent les études. C’est dans cette optique qu’une équipe de généticiens a de nouveau séquencé le génome de celui qui est surnommé « homme des glaces ». Un prélèvement a été effectué  au niveau de l’os iliaque gauche de la momie et les chercheurs ont utilisé une méthode de séquençage plus performante: la méthode Illumina.

Ötzi a été découvert en 1991 par hasard par des randonneurs à 3 210 mètres d’altitude dans le glacier du Hauslabjoch dans les Alpes de l’Ötzal, d’où son surnom Ötzi. Daté d’il y a environ 3350-3120 ans avant notre ère, soit environ – 5 300 ans, cet homme aurait tué par une flèche et se serait ensuite naturellement momifié grâce au froid. La conservation exceptionnelle des restes ont permis de réaliser de nombreuses analyses, qui se poursuivent encore aujourd’hui.

Ötzi est généralement décrit comme ayant des cheveux longs et une peau pâle, mais cette nouvelle étude vient contredire ces affirmations puisqu’ Ötzi avait en réalité une peau foncée et peu de cheveux, il présente en effet des marqueurs génétiques associés avec la calvitie masculine. Ces derniers étaient noirs. Ces caractères phénotypiques correspondent en effet à l’apparence actuelle de la momie. Les analyses ont également révélé qu’Ötzi possède des allèles associés à un risque de diabète de type 2 et d’obésité.

En ce qui concerne son ascendance, Ötzi possède un bagage génétique provenant principalement des premiers agriculteurs néolithiques venant d’Anatolie. Cette population se serait métissée avec des chasseurs-cueilleurs de l’ouest de l’Europe, et c’est de cette combinaison dont descendrait Ötzi, puisque ce métissage peut être retracé jusqu’à environ 56 générations plus tôt dans son génome.