Molecular studies suggest that the lineages leading to humans and chimpanzees diverged approximately 6.5-5.5 million years (Myr) ago, in the Late Miocene. Hominid fossils from this interval, however, are fragmentary and of uncertain phylogenetic status, age, or both. Here I report new hominid specimens from the Middle Awash area of Ethiopia that date to 5.2-5.8 Myr and are associated with a wooded palaeoenvironment. These Late Miocene fossils are assigned to the hominid genus Ardipithecus and represent the earliest definitive evidence of the hominid clade. Derived dental characters are shared exclusively with all younger hominids. This indicates that the fossils probably represent a hominid taxon that postdated the divergence of lineages leading to modern chimpanzees and humans. However, the persistence of primitive dental and postcranial characters in these new fossils indicates that Ardipithecus was phylogenetically close to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans. These new findings raise additional questions about the claimed hominid status of Orrorin tugenensis, recently described from Kenya and dated to ∼6 Myr.
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