A jaw fossil, which researchers say is evidence of a new early human species. Photo by Cleveland Museum of Natural History/Nature
CLEVELAND, May 27 (UPI) -- Scientists have identified a new species of human ancestor they believe lived alongside Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis specimen.
The newly identified species is called Australopithecus deyiremeda, named after close examination of a unique set of fossils found in the central Afar region of the East African Rift Valley. The fossils are 3.3 million years old, roughly the same age as Lucy's bones.
They were unearthed roughly 20 miles north of where Lucy was discovered. The researchers responsible for the latest discovery say they even found A. afarensis alongside A. deyiremeda fossils at the revelatory dig site.
"This new species from Ethiopia takes the ongoing debate on early hominin diversity to another level," lead researcher Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a scientist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said in a press release.
"Some of our colleagues are going to be skeptical about this new species, which is not unusual," Haile-Selassie acknowledged. "However, I think it is time that we look into the earlier phases of our evolution with an open mind and carefully examine the currently available fossil evidence rather than immediately dismissing the fossils that do not fit our long-held hypotheses."
Because the two species of hominin were found in such close proximity -- both chronologically and geographically -- researchers suggest they likely featured different skill sets and took advantage of different food resources.
But as Haile-Selassie predicted, not everyone is on board.
Tim White, a researcher at the University of California, told NewScientist that more fossils are needed to prove differentiation worthy of a separate special classification. He thinks the new species could just be party of Lucy's family.
"Darwin recognized that anatomical variation within a biological species is normal," he said.
The species discovery is detailed in the journal Nature.