Magazine article Science News

Faithful Ancestors: Researchers Debate Claims of Monogamy for Lucy and Her Ancient Kin

Magazine article Science News

Faithful Ancestors: Researchers Debate Claims of Monogamy for Lucy and Her Ancient Kin

Article excerpt

A weird kind of creature strode across the eastern African landscape from around 4 million to 3 million years ago. Known today by the scientific label Australopithecus afarensis, these ancient ancestors of people may have taken the battle of the sexes in a strange direction, for primates at any rate. True, no one can re-create with certainty the court and spark that led to sexual unions between early hominids. Nothing short of a time machine full of scientifically trained paparazzi could manage that trick.

All is not lost, though. Scientists are looking to fossil remains of A. afarensis to provide, as a prehistoric tabloid would, a revealing expose of the hominid's intimate tendencies. A statistical analysis 2 years ago indicated that A. afarensis males exhibited only a moderate size advantage over females, rather than the larger difference seen in gorillas. According to Owen Lovejoy and Philip L. Reno, both of Kent (Ohio) State University, who directed that study, the size similarity implies that A. afarensis adults of both sexes favored long-term relationships, which arose as a matter of survival, not morality. Sleeping around just didn't cut it during hominids' start-up era.

That view has generated controversy, which comes as no surprise to the Kent State scientists. They themselves had unabashedly dismissed other researchers' earlier work that depicted A. afarensis males as the considerably larger sex, with the fiercest male fighters monopolizing the mating game.

However, some recent work provides evidence for A. afarensis sex differences that were considerably greater than those in modern people and that approach those in gorillas, according to J. Michael Plavcan of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and his colleagues. They report their analysis in the March Journal of Human Evolution. Large sex differences would indicate a mating style similar to that of modern gorillas.

Lovejoy and Reno, however, stand by their earlier conclusions. "It's entirely possible that much of our sexual physiology and anatomy had already evolved in australopithecines," Lovejoy says. "That set the stage for massive brain growth in our later fossil ancestors."

LUCY'S LOVE LIFE Anthropologists discovered evidence of A. afarensis, including the partial skeleton dubbed Lucy, in eastern Africa more than 30 years ago. The bones seemed to fall into two size categories. At that time, researchers butted heads over whether these bones represented two species of human ancestors that lived at the same time or one species that included males with big, bulky bodies relative to those of females.

After noting similar shapes of the larger and smaller remains, proponents of the one-species view won out. Using measurements of people's bones in relation to body weight as a reference, investigators then estimated that A. afarensis males weighed an average of 98 pounds, while their female counterparts tipped the scales at only 65 pounds. That's a much greater sex disparity in weight than is found in people today but approaches that measured among gorillas and orangutans.

Many researchers concluded that in Lucy's species, as among gorillas, the toughest males dominated the mating scene. Gorilla males tend to fight among themselves, baring dagger-like canine teeth. Winners do the lion's share of mating with available females, whom the dominant males guard from skulking suitors.

Demonstrating another lifestyle, chimps exhibit virtually no size differences between sexes, but males retain large, fanglike canines, Lovejoy notes. A female typically mates numerous times with several partners during periods of sexual receptivity, which she advertises via temporarily swollen breasts and hindquarters.

According to Lovejoy, though, behaviors of gorillas or chimps can't serve as a model for Lucy and her comrades. In 1981, he proposed that they were descendants of a new kind of primate built for what he calls social monogamy. …

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