IT ISN’T often that an esteemed professor sets out to investigate a scientific discovery made by a 15-year-old boy, but in 1938 Robert Broom made an exception. The British-born palaeontologist was keenly aware that 1930s South Africa was gaining a reputation for its exceptionally primitive-looking hominin fossils. So, when he heard that schoolchild Gert Terblanche had discovered fragments of a hominin skull in a cave there, he tracked him down immediately. Broom’s visit to the boy’s school paid off – he later recalled that the teenager was sauntering around with “four of what are perhaps the most valuable teeth in the world in his trouser pocket”.
Within months, Broom had finished analysing the fossils. Deciding they were unlike anything discovered before, he gave the ancient hominin a new name: Paranthropus.
But despite his confidence that the remains were valuable, Paranthropus never became famous. Perhaps that is because it was a misfit: it resembled one of our small-brained ancestors, but it was present on Earth long after other ape-like hominins had given way to big-brained humans. Even among palaeoanthropologists, Paranthropus is described as the “forgotten” hominin.
Perhaps not for much longer. Spurred on by the discovery of more fossils, researchers are finally reassessing this addition to our evolutionary tree – and their work suggests it was one of the oddest. Paranthropus may have been a skilled tool-maker, but it also potentially grazed grass like a cow and communicated with low rumbles like an elephant. The question now is, can the research bring us closer to understanding how the last of the ape-people survived in a world that was dominated…