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In Kenya, scientists find fossils of man's earliest ancestor

NAIROBI, Kenya (Reuters) -- French and Kenyan scientists have unearthed fossilized remains of mankind's earliest known ancestor that predate previous discoveries by more than 1.5 million years, the team announced on Monday.

They said the discovery of "Millennium Man," as the creature has been nicknamed, could change the way scientists think about evolution and the origin of species.

The first remains were discovered in the Tugen hills of Kenya's Baringo district on October 25 by a team from College de France in Paris and the Community Museums of Kenya.

Since then the scientists have unearthed distinct body parts belonging to at least five individuals, both male and female.

"Not only is this find older than any else previously known, it is also in a more advanced stage of evolution," paleontologist Martin Pickford told a news conference.

"It is at least six million years old, which means it is older than the (previously oldest) remains found at Aramis in Ethiopia, which were 4.5 million years old."

"Lucy," the skeleton of Australopithicus afarensis found in Ethiopia in 1974, is believed to have lived around 3.2 million years ago.

An almost perfectly fossilized left femur shows the much older Millennium Man already had strong back legs that enabled it to walk upright -- giving it hominid characteristics which relate it directly to man.

A thick right humerus bone from the upper arm suggests it also had tree-climbing skills but probably not enough to "hang" from tree branches or swing limb to limb.

The length of the bones show the creature was about the size of a modern chimpanzee, according to Brigitte Senut, a team member from the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

But it is the teeth and jaw structure which most clearly link Millennium Man to the modern human.

It has small canines and full molars -- similar dentition to modern man and suggesting a diet of mainly fruit and vegetables with occasional opportunistic meat-eating.

Although no dating has been done on the remains just unearthed, strata from where the fossils were recovered have been previously proven twice by independent teams -- from Britain and the U.S. -- to show an age of six million years.

The Baringo area is part of Africa's Great Rift Valley, which has long been rich in archaeological and paleontological discoveries and the source of almost all fossils related to man's earliest ancestors.

The area is rich in calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate that replace the organic material in bones to form fossils in an environment sealed by lava or volcanic ash.

Pickford and Senut said they were confident the team would unearth even more remains that could help form a near-perfect picture of Millennium Man.

"We are just going to publish our initial findings, to get the excitement, and continue with our work," Pickford said. "I am sure there is still a lot more out there -- possibly even older."

Fossil parts of other species found at the same site hint at a rich variety of fauna and flora.

"We have found fossils of trees, fossils of rhino, hippo, antelope ... many things," said Senut. "They would not be what you recognize today, but earlier ancestors of them."

Chew marks on one femur of Millennium Man suggest our earliest ancestor may have met an unfortunate end, but one that is still played out across parts of Africa every day.

"It looks like he was killed and eaten by some sort of carnivore, probably a cat," said Pickford.

"It was probably dragged up a tree to the cat's usual eating place and then bits fell into the water below."

The latest fossils were found in the village of Rondinin in the Tugen hills, around 150 miles (235 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Nairobi.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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