X-rays show in stunning detail the
interior of the skull of a new human-like creature found in South Africa.
The hominid Australopithecus sediba
was presented to the world last week.
The X-ray images reveal information
about the ancient animal’s brain and tantalising evidence of the insects that
may have fed on the dead body.
Its discoverers say it fills a key
gap between older creatures and the group of more modern species known as Homo,
which includes our own kind.
The work was conducted at the
European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, which has
developed expertise in the non-destructive study of fossils.
Probing such artefacts with a
brilliant light source is the only way to see inside the specimens without actually
breaking them apart.
South African researchers took the
skull of the juvenile, 1.9-million-year-old creature, and many other parts of
its skeleton, to the European facility for a two-week investigation.
The ESRF uses a technique known as
micro-tomography to assemble its images. This involves taking a series of a
high-contrast, high-resolution X-ray radiographs of the target fossil in
rotation to build up a 3D representation.
One of the main reasons for
undertaking the study was so that scientists could learn more about A. sediba’s
teeth and get a firm age for the juvenile at death.
The X-ray images can discern the
fine details of internal growth lines and other hidden features.
“The teeth are very beautiful
especially the third molars, the non-erupted teeth; and given the quality of
the scans we will have no problem virtually extracting them to study
them,” said the ESRF’s Dr Paul Tafforeau.
“What we want to know is the
real age at death and not just the developmental age, or modern-equivalent age,
because what we want to track is how, during the evolution of hominids, the
life stories slowed down – to go from a pattern that is rapid like apes to one
which is slow like modern humans,” he said.
It will take a year at least to
complete this investigation.