THE STORY OF THREE TEETH FROM AFAR

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Three teeth belonging to Homo Ergaster/Erectus that were found in the Afar Triangle region in Eritrea are amongst the most ancient archeological finds that have been analysed via synchrotron micro-tomography and micro-imaging. The teeth were found in the sites of Uadi Aalad e Mulhuli Amo thanks to the Buia International Project Excavation Campaign. Sapienza University has been a Buia Project partner for over ten years.

Notwithstanding the climactic hardships that researchers face in this region, teams from Sapienza, the National Natural History Museum in Paris, University of Florence and other international organisations have been pursuing research in Ethiopia to attempt to bridge the fossil gap that exists in the history of mankind at one million years ago.

The Sapienza mission, coordinated by Paleo-Anthropologist Alfredo Coppa from the Department of Environmental Sciences, has contributed to the discovery of a number of Homo Ergaster fossils that could provide precious new knowledge on this black hole in the history of mankind.

The Italian team identified the Mulhuli Amo site, only a few kilometres away from the one where the UA 31 cranium was found, which surprised the academic world on account of its peculiar characteristics and shed new light on the history of our evolution. The new site is so rich in Homo finds that it has been nicknamed the “Amigdala Sanctuary”. A report on these finds has been published in the prestigious Journal of Human Evolution.

The report centres on three teeth: two human incisors found in Uadi Aalad and a molar found in Mulhuli Amo. A comparison of their structure revealed a mosaic of primitive characteristics that is very similar to that of more ancient finds in Eastern Africa (i.e., enamel depth like that of the Neanderthals) as well as more peculiar characteristics such as the level of dentin in the pulpar cavity.

A nuclear magnetic resonance test allowed the researchers to view the micro-markers of the dentin development (Andresen Lines) and allowed them to estimate the development of Homo roots at a million years ago, a datum that is coherent with that of modern humanity. This discovery demonstrates that a dental growth model similar to that of modern humans, already one million years ago, before the advent of Homo Sapiens.

The analysis of the structure and development of the three teeth was conducted by the Sapienza Faculty of Physics Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Laboratory, as well as at the Elettra Synchrotron and the multi-disciplinary laboratory of the Trieste International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP).

These important results open up new roads in the study of human evolution during the lower Pleistocene. Although the fossil record for this period remain extremely rare, the next paleo-anthropological dig in Eritrea’s Afar zone (scheduled for the end of 2014) could provide further evidence of the evolutionary relation between Homo Ergaster and Homo Heidelbergensis, the forefather of modern humanity.

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