Genus of extinct hominins that may be ancestral to human beings (Homo sapiens). The name Australopithecus refers to the first fossils, which were discovered in South Africa. Australopithecus lived in much of Africa during the Pliocene (c. 5.3–2.6 million years ago [mya]) and Pleistocene (c. 2.6 million–11,700 years ago) epochs. These hominins were distinguished from apes by their upright posture and bipedal gait, and their teeth were more humanlike than apelike, but their brains were small and not very different from those of living apes. Five species are recognized: A. anamensis (4.2–3.9 mya), A. afarensis (3.8–2.9 mya), A. bahrelghazali (3.5–3.0 mya), A. africanus (3–2.4 mya), and A. garhi (2.5 mya). Three robust species are now instead classified as Paranthropus (2.7–1.3 mya): P. aethiopicus, P. robustus, and P. boisei. Paranthropus eventually became extinct, leaving no evolutionary successors. See also Hadar remains; human evolution; Laetoli footprints; Lucy; Olduvai Gorge; Sterkfontein.
Lateral view of an Australopithecus africanus skull found at
—Courtesy of the Transvaal Museum, Pretoria, S.Af.
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