In 1994 remains of a previously unknown hominin species were discovered in Ethiopa. This is common enough in palaeoanthropolgy- in the areas of Africa which have a geological history conducive to the preservation of fossils (mainly
We can be certain of several things, vg: the press will make a complete mess of trying to explain it to the public, since they are looking for a story to tell, and there is no story, only a series of facts which suggest other possibilities, attempts to fill in the gaps, and at the moment the story of human evolution is mostly gaps;
there will be people who say, 'look, they don't know, they admit they were wrong.' To most people, belief is more important than knowledge, and truth means what they believe to be, rather than what is. To many such people, the knowledge that our understanding of human development has changed will come as a great relief, as they will feel justified in inventing a story of their own, or borrowing someone else’s that they happen to like;
there will be many, the great majority in all probability, who have no interest in the subject whatsoever;
there will be some who will take what understanding that can get of the subject and will then bore people senseless at every opportunity, with greater or lesser precision and powers of exegesis. Your humble blogging hedgehog is in this last category. Be warned.
So how has the analysis of Ardipithecus changed our knowledge of the subject? Well, if you really want to know, the best place to go is the original papers published by the team that is working on the bones. Registration is free and easy, and worthwhile if you have more than a passing interest in the subject. Here, here, here and here you will find experts summing it up, criticising, interpreting, suggesting new avenues of research and generally mulling the whole thing over with an expertise I cannot hope to match.
But briefly, Ardipithecus ramidus had abducting halluxes- opposable big toes- which suggest it climbed trees using all four limbs. But the pelvis and the craneum strongly point to its being bipedal on the ground. It didn't walk like apes do now. Since it comes from fairly near the chimp-human split, this suggests that the last common ancestor might have had a locomotion more similar to ours than to modern apes. It appears, from this and other characteristics, that chimpanzees and gorillas may have evolved much further from the LCA than was previously thought. They might, in fact, have evolved further than we have ourselves. It is this aspect of the work that is going to bet the press and the public excited, and it is what will most impinge on our understanding of ourselves.
There'll be plenty more in the next few weeks. Watch this space. Ot click the links.