Fossil bee nest provides clues to environment of early hominin

Scientists recover more evidence that the "Taung Child" lived in a dry savannah

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29852342242 75a40dc9a1Endocranium face and mandible of a 2.1 million year old Australopithecus africanus specimen, the "Taung Child", discovered in South Africa. Didier Descouens, Wikimedia Commons
Analysis of the first fossil bee nest from the Plio-Pleistocene of South Africa suggests that the human ancestor Australopithecus africanus lived in a dry savannah environment, according to a study* published September 28, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONEby Jennifer Parker from University College London, United Kingdom, and colleagues.

Little paleoecological information is available for the site in South Africa where the first Au. africanus fossil—the ‘Taung Child’—was discovered. However, insect-related fossils, abundant at the discovery site, can yield insights into the paleoenvironment. Bees, for example, tend to build characteristic nests in characteristic conditions. Parker and colleagues analyzed CT scans of a fossil bee nest that was discovered near the Taung Child site to determine its internal structure and thus the kinds of bees that built it.

The fossil nest was exceptionally well preserved, and the structure of its cells and tunnels suggested that it was made by a ground-nesting solitary bee. These bees typically nest on bare, light, dry soil that is exposed to the sun, which bolsters other recent evidence that Au. africanus lived in dry savannahs. Insect-related fossils are common but largely overlooked at sites where human ancestors lived, the researchers said, and their work underscores the contribution such fossils can make to understanding the environments where human ancestors lived.  

29966802585 d795f7f589The fossil bee nest. Image credit: Parker, et al (2016) 

29672768850 56a4521c7cTarangire National Park in Tanzania, East Africa. Today's African savannahs serve as an analog for the type of environment in which some of our human ancestors lived. Wikimedia Commons

"When Raymond Dart published his description of the 'Taung Child' in 1925 he profoundly changed our understanding of human evolution,” says study co-author Philip Hopley. “In the 90 years following his discovery, attention of anthropologists has moved to other African sites and specimens, and research at Taung has been hampered by the complex geology and uncertain dating. New research at Taung is helping to reconstruct the environment in which this enigmatic little hominin lived and died.”

*Parker JF, Hopley PJ, Kuhn BF (2016) Fossil Carder Bee's Nest from the Hominin Locality of Taung, South Africa. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0161198. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161198