Grine, Frederick E. Department of Anthropology, State University of New York, Stony Brook, New York.
Last reviewed:October 2019
- Historical context
- Australopith species characteristics
- Evolutionary relationships of australopith species
- Related Primary Literature
- Additional Reading
Any member of an adaptively diverse group of extinct hominin species that inhabited Africa between approximately 4.2 million years ago (MYA) and 1.2 MYA. The term australopith is used in preference to the term australopithecine, which is sometimes still erroneously employed in the paleoanthropological literature, because australopithecine implies that its members form a meaningful taxonomic group (that is, the Australopithecinae) and it is clear that they do not. Rather, the australopiths are a paraphyletic group of species that are linked by relatively few morphological features, but which are believed to share a general “adaptive grade.” In addition to being bipedal (a characteristic shared by all hominins), they possess an ape-sized brain (approximately 350–550 cm3; 21–34 in.3); small, nonhoning canines, relatively large premolars and molars with thick enamel; and thickly buttressed mandibles. There are nine species considered as australopiths and although some workers regard them all as belonging to a single genus, Australopithecus, it is evident from numerous studies that at least two and possibly three genera are represented. All nine australopith species are known only from Africa; the fossils come from a wide geographical area, encompassing parts of South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The species are listed in the table, together with their currently known geographical and geochronological distributions. Their geochronological distribution is compared with other hominin species in Fig. 1. See also: Anthropology; Apes; Fossil apes; Fossil humans; Fossil primates; Molecular anthropology; Physical anthropology
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