Paleontology and paleoanthropology are full of unwieldy scientific names and these names crop up from time to time in news stories. I will be discussing the meaning of the names of three alliterative hominid species: Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus africanus, and Australopithecus anamensis.
Australopithecus breaks down into two parts: australo and –pithecus. Australo comes from the Latin word ‘australis‘ which means southern and pithecus comes from the Greek word ‘pithekos‘ which means ape. Australopithecus is a genus of gracile hominids that originated in eastern Africa around 4 million years ago and went extinct around 2 million years ago.
Anamensis breaks down into two parts: anam and –ensis. Anam comes from the Turkana word for lake, and ensis is a Latin word which means belong to or originating in. Therefore, Australopithecus anamensis means southern ape originating in a lake. The first fossils were found near Lake Turkana in Kenya and were named for the region. Fossils have also been found in the Middle Awash of Ethiopia. Australopithecus anamensis lived in East Africa between 4.2 to 3.9 million years ago.
Afarensis breaks down into two parts: afar and –ensis. Afar is a region in Ethiopia and we already know that ensis means originating in. Australopithecus afarensis therefore means southern ape originating in the Afar. Many fossils have been found in East Africa and fossil sites include those in Hadar (part of the Afar region of Ethiopia) and Laetoli in Tanzania, as well as other sites in Ethiopia and Kenya. Australopithecus afarensis is best known for including Lucy and the makers of the Laetoli footprints. Australopithecus afarensis lived in East Africa between 3.85 and 2.95 million years ago.
Africanus is the Latin word for Africa, so Australopithecus africanus means southern ape from Africa. Unlike Australopithecus anamensis and Australopithecus afarensis, this species has been found at 4 sites in South Africa: Taung, Sterkfontein, Makapansgat, and Gladysvale. The first Australopithecus africanus fossil was the Taung Child found by Raymond Dart in 1924. The Taung Child was the first specimen to be included in the genus Australopithecus. They lived in South Africa between 3.3 and 2.1 million years ago.
This list only includes some of the gracile australopithecines. There are other species within Australopithecus, as well as the robust australopithecines that have been placed in either Australopithecus or Paranthropus. However, that is a discussion for another day.
To learn more about the species I mentioned above, I recommend the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins website. If you want to learn more about human evolution, I highly recommend John Hawks’ blog.
Check out this song about australopithecines!