Discovery of the Lyuba the Baby Mammoth Friday, Jan 16 2009 


The frozen carcass of a baby woolly mammoth discovered in Russia last summer is the most complete example of the species ever discovered.

What counts as archaeology? It’s a question we’re constantly asking ourselves when we decide what stories to cover. Basically, any discovery connected to the human past made by people who call themselves archaeologists is considered fair game. And when paleontologists find the remains of our hominid ancestors, we cover that too.

That rule of thumb left this year’s amazing discovery of “Lyuba” out in the cold when we assembled our list. A six-month-old baby mammoth, Lyuba was found last May eroding out of a riverbank in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula by Yuri Khudi, a Nenets reindeer herder. Russian paleontologist Alexei Tikhonov and French explorer Bernard Buiges (see “Mammoth Distortions”) soon learned of the find, and they quickly organized a scientific study of the remarkably well-preserved specimen, bringing in mammoth expert Daniel Fisher from the University of Michigan, among others.

The most complete mammoth carcass every found, Lyuba (named after Khudi’s wife) weighs about 110 pounds and is the size of a large dog. X-rays of her body revealed heartbreaking details, like the fact that she had nascent tusks no larger than a human finger. More discoveries are likely to come in 2008, when the baby mammoth travels to Japan for CT-scanning.

Strictly speaking, Lyuba is a paleontological, not archaeological, discovery. But every piece of information she can tell us about her brief life brings us closer to re-creating her world, a landscape she shared with our Paleolithic ancestors.


Archaeology Discovery of Homo habilis and Homo erectus Tuesday, Dec 9 2008 

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Whether they are mother-and-daughter species or two sisters, the relationship between Homo habilis and Homo erectus is becoming strained. A pair of discoveries near Lake Ileret in Kenya call into question the idea that H. erectus, the species from which modern humans evolved, is descended from H. habilis, the earliest hominid known to use stone tools.

A team of paleoanthropologists led by Meave and Louise Leakey of the Koobi Fora Research Project uncovered the upper jawbone of a H. habilis dated to 1.44 million years ago, and the skull of a H. erectus dated to 1.55 million years ago. H. habilis was thought to have gradually evolved into H. erectus over hundreds of thousands of years, fading out of existence around 1.65 million years ago. A previously discovered H. erectus fossil dated to 1.9 million years combined with the new finds show the two species lived together in the same lake basin for close to 500,000 years.

The discovery of a Homo habilis jawbone and a Homo erectus skull that are close in age has paleontologists rethinking the idea that H. habilis evolved into H. erectus. (National Museums of Kenya/Fred Spoor)

“I think increasingly they will be recognized as sister species that lived in the same area and did different things,” says Fred Spoor of University College London and a member of the team. H. erectus‘ smaller teeth and less powerful jaws suggest it was probably eating more meat. If the two species both evolved from a common ancestor, it changes the human race’s relationship to H. habilis. “Strictly speaking, if our scenario is correct,” says Spoor, “Homo habilis, as we know the species, seems to be a dead branch.”