Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mary Leakey and the Discovery of the false 'Nutcracker Man'

Paranthropus boisei
On July 17, 1959, Mary Leakey discovered the first fossil of the Paranthropus boisei at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

Becoming an anthropologist has always been the dream of Mary Leakey. When she was 10 years old, her family lived in Dordogne and she already helped at excavations and had through her family contact to the famous Howard Carter, who had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. After her father's death, Leakey had to return to London with her mother and was supposed to receive an adequate education. Mary Leakey, not the most disciplined student these days, was dismissed from school several times and therefore never managed to reach an educational degree. After various difficulties, Mary met the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey, who was in need of an illustrator for his book, 'Adam's Ancestors'. While she was doing that work they became romantically attached. Louis Leakey was still married when he started living with Mary, which caused a scandal that ruined his career at Cambridge University. Finally, the couple got married when Louis' wife Frida divorced him in 1936. Mary Leakey achieved her first important discovery in Kenya. At Lake Victoria she found the most complete skull of a Proconsul africanus in 1948. Because of political riots, Leakey and her family had to leave the country and went to Tanzania, where she made her great discovery in 1959, the oldest fossil of a representative of the hominini.

Typical for the Paranthropus boisei are the enormous back teeth and his huge jaw, therefore he has been called the 'Nutcracker Man'. Earlier studies resulted in the assumption that the Paranthropus boisei mainly subsisted on nuts and fruits, due to his strong jaw. The nutritious behavior of the ancestor can lead to finding out essential aspects of his life as well as the reason of his extinction and the vegetation he has lived in. While researching on the hominini, scientists examined their dental enamel. This was possible, because through the years many fossils of the Paranthropus boisei have been found. It was discovered, that carbon-atoms of herbal food could be found in their dental enamel. This proved that his nutritious behavior is more alike with the one of a zebra's or a hippo's ancestor, than with other primates, that preferred fruits. The huge jaw is presumably due to his ability to take huge loads of tropical grass into his mouth. Many scientists assume that the extinction of the Paranthropus boisei 1.4 million years ago is caused by his limited way of nutrition, but this could never be proven to this day.

At yovisto Dr. Louise Leakey asks, "Who are we?". The question takes her to the Rift Valley in Eastern Africa, where she digs for the evolutionary origins of humankind -- and suggests a stunning new vision of our competing ancestors.



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