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Dentistry Ohio

'Living' Article April 2010


April 2010


It was 1974 when paleoanthropologists Donald Johanson and Tom Gray were digging in Hadar, Ethiopia and stumbled onto the partial skeleton of the earliest known hominid of that time.  This diminutive little human forerunner came to be known by the world as “Lucy”.  It seems that the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was heard playing in the camp that day as the crew celebrated their find.  The name stuck.  Lucy was the biggest discovery of the century that had unfolded following Charles Darwin’s writings concerning the descent of humankind.  One of my early dental patients was so excited about Lucy that he bought me a copy of Johanson’s book, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. 

So what has happened in the years following the unearthing of Lucy?  The cover story from the March issue of Smithsonian magazine invites readers to return once again to the desert sands of Ethiopia where recent excavations trace our human family tree back seven million years!  In recent months Tim White, a paleoanthropologist from the University of California at Berkley has been reporting in detail on the conclusions he and his team have drawn based on their fifteen years of digging in Ethiopia’s Afar desert at the so-called Middle Awash.  It was 1994 when they first found traces of “Ardi”, a female hominid who lived 4.4 million years ago, more than a million years before the time of Lucy.  In the years since, seventy scientists from eighteen nations have found more than 300 specimens from seven different hominid species.  Ardi is far from the oldest of the region’s fossil remains.  What makes her the region’s favorite focus is the fact that her remains are by far the most complete of any early hominid.  Significantly White and his team have found 125 pieces of Ardi including the two most critical elements in the defining of a hominid, teeth and a pelvis.  While apes retain cuspid/canine teeth that are long and weapon-like, hominids demonstrate blunted cuspids much like those in our own mouths today.  Even more significantly the pelvis of Ardi shows characteristics of the hominid ‘gold-standard’, upright walking. 

White’s findings have led him and his group to shake up some of the previously held beliefs regarding the lifestyle of early hominids.  Ardi’s feet featured an opposable big toe, much like the thumbs on our hands.  This would suggest that she still spent a considerable portion of her time in the trees to escape predators, find food and perhaps even sleep.  Ardi’s remains define a segment of human history that was divided between two worlds, the trees and the ground.  Earlier research had long suggested that early hominids developed in grassy savannas.  White’s model suggests that Ardi and her family lived in a woodland with a closed canopy. 

The findings of White and many others from the past fifteen years have cleared some of the clouds from our evolutionary picture but it leaves me filled with new wonderment.   What pieces will literally surface next? 

Tagged In: Matchbox Toys, Amalgam, Anthropology, Antibiotic Premedication, Artificial Joints Dental Care

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Mason, OH