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The skull of StW 573, a 3.67 Ma Australopithecus skeleton from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa

By Ronald Clarke, Kathleen Kuman

Posted 04 Dec 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/483495

Here we present the first full anatomical description of the 3.67 million-year-old Australopithecus skull StW 573 that was recovered with its skeleton from the Sterkfontein Member 2 breccia in the Silberberg Grotto. Analysis demonstrates that it is most similar in multiple key morphological characters to a group of fossils from Sterkfontein Member 4 and Makapansgat that are here distinguished morphologically as A. prometheus. This taxon contrasts with another group of fossils from those sites assigned to A. africanus. The anatomical reasons for why these groupings should not be lumped together (as is frequently done for the South African fossils) are discussed in detail. In support of this classification, we also present for the first time a palate (StW 576 from Sterkfontein Member 4) newly reconstructed by RJC, which has a uniquely complete adult dentition of an A. africanus. The StW 573 skull also has certain similarities with other earlier Australopithecus fossils in East Africa, A. afarensis and A. anamensis, which are discussed. One of its most interesting features is a pattern of very heavy anterior dental wear unlike that found in A. africanus but resembling that found in A. anamensis at 4.17 Ma. While StW 573 is the only hominid fossil in Sterkfontein Member 2, we conclude that competitive exclusion probably accounts for the synchronous and sympatric presence of two species of Australopithecus in the younger deposits at Makapansgat and Sterkfontein Member 4. Because the StW 573 skull is associated with a near-complete skeleton that is also described for the first time in this special issue, we are now able to use this individual to improve our understanding of more fragmentary finds in the South African fossil record of Australopithecus.

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