White, Tim D.

▪ 1996

      Did scientists take a giant step toward finding the elusive link between humans and apes? Paleoanthropologist Tim D. White and his team of fossil hunters thought so in 1994 when they described what they interpreted to be the oldest, most apelike hominid fossils yet found. White named the 4.4 million-year-old bones Australopithecus ramidus, which classified the new primate among the australopithecine hominids and gave it the status of a potential root species for the human family. In May 1995, however, after finding more bones and hearing his colleagues' criticisms, White appeared less sure and changed its name to Ardipithecus ramidus, thus creating a new genus for it. Even if A. ramidus proved not to be a direct human ancestor, it was certain to be a significant piece of the puzzle of human evolution.

      White, along with Gen Suwa of the University of Tokyo and Berhane Asfaw of the Ethiopian government's Paleoanthropology Laboratory, unearthed A. ramidus near the town of Aramis, which lies in the Middle Awash region of northern Ethiopia. The first fragments—teeth and pieces of skull, jawbone, and arm bones—were discovered in 1992, and later excavations yielded bones of the pelvis, leg, ankle, and foot, fragments necessary to determine whether the species walked upright.

      The passion for hunting ancient remains came to White at a young age. Born on Aug. 24, 1950, in Los Angeles, he spent much time in his early years around Lake Arrowhead, California, scouring Native American campsites for artifacts. After studying anthropology and biology at the University of California, Riverside, he earned a Ph.D. in biological anthropology in 1977 from the University of Michigan. After that he had several teaching posts, and in 1986 he became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

      White's research led him naturally to Africa. As a graduate student he was part of an expedition to Tanzania headed by anthropologist Richard Leakey. He also worked with Leakey's mother, Mary, studying fossilized hominid footprints. Some of White's most significant finds, however, were made in Ethiopia in the Middle Awash Valley. In the early 1990s at Maka, a town to the west of Aramis, he uncovered the 3.4 million-year-old remains of Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid species for which specimens (including the famous partial skeleton Lucy) had been discovered earlier in Ethiopia and Tanzania. White's find helped quell the controversy over whether the specimens from the two countries were indeed of one species.

      Although White's A. ramidus was found in the same region as his A. afarensis, its physical characteristics, many of them chimpanzee-like, left little doubt that it was different. Whether its humanlike characteristics gave it sufficient claim to being an early hominid, however, remained unresolved. (MARY JANE FRIEDRICH)

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Universalium. 2010.

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