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Species found in Africa said to resemble humans
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Dr. Noel Boaz (right) talks with Simon Barber, U.S. Country Manager with the South African Embassy, about the “Australopithecine!” exhibit Thursday at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. The exhibit shows Australopithecus sediba, a species which is believed may show an intermediate link between humans and primates. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Friday, March 1, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Everyone is an African, according to a local scientist.

That is because human ancestry is traceable to extinct primates from that continent, anthropologist and physician Dr. Noel Boaz told about 50 people Thursday night during an exhibit opening at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

“Australopithecine!” features casts of fossil specimens — including skulls, jawbones and teeth — of both young and adult members of the species Australopithecus sediba which natural historians have determined became extinct nearly 2 million years ago.

The anatomy of Australopithecus sediba is similar to that of early humans.

The fossils were discovered in South Africa in 2008. Zach Ryder, marketing and public relations director for the museum, said that to his understanding, the fossils have never been shown publicly due to special care that must be taken to preserve them. The casts closely resemble the fossils.

Anthropologists have a theory that as the species became extinct, modern humans developed, information on the museum’s website shows.

Boaz said the fossils reveal how human adaptations evolved from ancient primates. For example, he noted, Australopithecus had smaller brains than humans, but they were the first primates to walk on two legs like humans.

Looking at the exhibit, Dr. Mark Crabtree, a former Martinsville mayor who is a dentist and on the museum’s trustee board, pointed out to other onlookers that Australopithecus sediba essentially has “the same configuration of teeth we have.”

In 1924, according to the exhibit, the first fossil evidence of a link between higher primates and human ancestry was found in South Africa.

Australopithecus africanus was not an ape, but it was too primitive to be called a human. Australopithecus sediba, on the other hand, may show an intermediate link between humans and primates, the exhibit shows.

Boaz said “everybody alive today comes from one origin” — primates that lived millions of years ago in Africa — and therefore “all of us are Africans.”

He said that as humans have evolved and moved farther from the equator, their skin has gotten more and more pale due to various factors, such as a vitamin deficiency. But the closer people live near the equator, the darker their skin generally is, he observed.

The exhibit shows the differences between the brain sizes, diets and other aspects of life of Australopithecus sediba and modern humans. It also shows possible causes of why the species died out and how its members related to each other, as well as the challenges of preserving fossils.

“Australopithecine!” will be on display until June 29 at the state-operated museum on Starling Avenue in Martinsville. The exhibit is in the museum’s lobby, which is free to visitors, unlike exhibits elsewhere in the building.

Ryder acknowledged that Australopithecus sediba has been controversial in terms of the creation versus evolution debate.

“Everybody has different opinions” about how humans came to be on the Earth, Ryder said, “and that’s good.”

He said the exhibit is simply intended to point out scientific similarities between humans and early primates.

The South African embassy in Washington loaned the fossil casts to the museum.

Simon Barber, U.S. country manager for the Brand South Africa marketing effort, represented the embassy at Thursday’s exhibit opening. He said the fossils found in that nation and scientific research into them help dispel the notion that South Africa is just a country full of strange animals.

Barber said South Africa is becoming highly regarded as a center for science and innovation through efforts such as research into human evolution and the ongoing development of the world’s largest radiotelescope.

Having the fossil casts at the museum helps give it worldwide prominence, Executive Director Joe Keiper said, because scientists and others who are familiar with the casts will be talking about the exhibit, the museum and Martinsville.

“This is a great-looking museum,” Barber told those attending the private ceremony that marked the exhibit opening. Guests included state and local officials and museum board members.

Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Doug Domenech, who also spoke during the event, said that when he and members of his department travel, “we brag about this museum and encourage people to come to Martinsville.”

“I hope ... you feel that pride,” too, he said.

Domenech mentioned that both Virginia and South Africa are well-known for discoveries of fossils.

Barber said the two places have something else in common.

Like in Virginia, he said, in South Africa “we make great wine.”


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