ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Scientists in Ethiopia have discovered something extraordinary - the skeleton of a child that's 3.3 million years old. It's the oldest fossil of a child every found. It is not a human, but an ape-like creature that nonetheless could walk upright. It's from the same species from the same fossil Lucy, also discovered in Ethiopia more than 30 years ago. Rumors of the new find have circulated for years and today the details have been made public.
NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The child was probably female and about three when she died. She lay within a virtual glove of sandstone for over three million years. Then six years ago, an Ethiopian scientist saw part of the fossil sticking up out of the ground.
Dr. ZERESENAY ALEMSEGED (Max Plank Institute): I realized the significance of the fossil. That what we had then was only the upper part of the body including the skull.
JOYCE: Zeresenay Alemseged grew up studying Ethiopia's rich fossil beds. He's now at the Max Plank Institute in Germany. He knew he had something extraordinary and that retrieving this fragile time capsule would take time, lots of time.
Dr. ALEMSEGED: It took me and my underlings five years.
JOYCE: Five years?
Dr. ALEMSEGED: Yes. It was thousands and thousands of hours cleaning, preparing, describing the fossil since it was discovered in 2000.
JOYCE: As Alemseged scraped away, rumors spread of the skeleton's amazing completeness. Bernard Wood, an anthropologist at George Washington University, remembers visiting Alemseged's lab a year ago.
Mr. BERNARD WOOD (George Washington University): He took this thing of the safe. I was just sort of standing there with my jaw dropping somewhere around my knees. I mean, it's just the most remarkable thing to contemplate what is such an unlikely event, which is the fossilization and then the fact that it's found. It's such a long shot.
JOYCE: Alemseged has now described the fossil in the journal Nature. Besides the skull, there are the upper and lower jaws, ribs, finger bones, leg and foot bones, even the kneecaps. The baby and adult teeth are still in the jaw. Wood says anthropologists are practically salivating at the information the skeleton might hold.
Mr. WOOD: You very seldom find all these things together. You rarely, extremely rarely, find them all together in an infant. It's like being a kid in a candy shop. I mean, you know, it's difficult to know, you know, which candies to grab first.
JOYCE: The child is from the group called Australopithecus Afarensis. It's widely believed to be a transitional form between tree dwelling primates and the earliest human-like species, but its exact position in the primate family tree is still debated.
Most special about Australopithecus was it walked. Walking as one of the first developments in human evolution. And the lower body of the child does belong to a walker. Yet its finger bones are curved, suggesting a climber. And Wood says there's the beautifully preserved shoulder blade.
Mr. WOOD: You very rarely find that in the fossil record. It's surrounded by muscle and it's high up on the wish list of scavengers. And this isn't modern human like either. Actually, intriguingly, it's rather like the shoulder blade of a gorilla.
JOYCE: The fossil is especially interesting because it's a child, which could illuminate how these early creatures matured. It may also shed light on how changes in the Ethiopian climate may have influenced human evolution.
Rene Bobe, from the University of Georgia and an author of the scientific paper, says the landscape was in fact changing when Australopithecus and later the first human ancestors lived there.
Mr. RENE BOBE (University of Georgia): There is indeed an opening of the environment, which means more grasslands coming in and fewer trees and forests.
JOYCE: There will be more from this fossil. Alemseged says he hasn't finished scraping away all the sandstone. He says he won't be rushed.
Dr. ALEMSEGED: Maybe it's the Ethiopian wisdom. We had this huge responsibility of conveying right scientific message to the scientific community. So I decided we would wait as long as it takes.
JOYCE: The fossil is known as the Dikika child after the region where it was found.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.