… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

June 4, 2007

A 3.3 million year old toddler

Filed under: Africa,TEDGlobal — Ethan @ 10:24 am

Zeray Alemseged is an Ethiopian paleontologist who claims responsibility for an amazing discovery: the world’s oldest child skeleton. In northeastern Ethiopia, he’s discovered a skeleton of a three year old girl which is 3.3 million years old. The skeleton, called Selam, is a member of the species http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australopithicus.

The fossil he discovered comes from an enormously remote part of the country – driving from Addis Ababa, it took 27 hours to drive the first 400km, and four hours to do the last few kilometers. It’s an area rich in history – stone tools dating from 2.6 million years ago, flutes from 35,0000 years ago, and gorgeous beads from 75,000 years ago.Zeray corrected me today – the three artifacts he showed were from around the world and were shown to illustrate “technology” – tools, “entertainment” – flutes and “design” – beads. Thanks for the correction… When he arrived at the dig site, he was the first human to drive a car to the spot. Photos show us an incredibly remote, harsh desert – he reminds us that this land had very different carrying capacity in the past: “It is an extinct game part, where our ancestors weren’t especially successful” in hunting large mammals like elephants.

Selam’s skeleton was encased in a sandstone block, because she was buried by the river. Alemseged speaks about the sense of wonder and responsibility of holding this block in a terrifically remote part of the world. It took five years to remove the skeleton from the block – a second birth, he says.

There’s good visual evidence that Selam is human – her skeleton indicates upright walking, and the flat forehead is more similar to humans that chinpanzees. He was able to determine sex by analyzing the teeth – because of sexual dimorphism, teeth are smaller in female than in males – her canines were so small that, even though they were baby teeth, he feels confident that she was female.

One remarkable feature about Selam is a hyoid bone – this is a bone that supports the back of the tongue and is critical to speech. This bone in Selam looks very apelike – he believes that her cries for her mother would have sounded very chimplike. This apelike feature found in a human skeleton is a profound reminder of our anthropological and evolutionary heritage.

Alemseged closes by uring us to have a positive African atitude towards Africa, urging Africans to “walk upright” to the future and to take charge of their heritage as the birthplace of humanity.


  1. […] Original by Ethan Zuckerman (Blog: My Heart’s in Accra) writes from TED conference in Arusha, Tanzania. […]

    Pingback by TEDGlobal2007: A 3.3 Billion Year Old Toddler - AfricanLoft — June 5, 2007 @ 2:40 am

  2. hello!
    how are you!
    ı am ahmet zeray
    from konya cihanbeyli
    ı am teacher
    sea you later.

    Comment by ahmet zeray — June 10, 2007 @ 5:06 am

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