recess radio program

01/23/07
Little One, the Earliest Child
    by John Cech

The hair of the child is black and whispy, spiked, really, and her half moon of a mouth has broken into a smile that shows her few small teeth and that furrows her brow with crinkles that dance along the brow of the child's brown face. The lively, close-set eyes look at the viewer as though to say, "Let's play!" This astonishing picture appeared recently on the cover of the National Geographic Magazine. It's an artist's rendering of what the 3.3 million year old child, whose bones were recently found in Ethiopia, might have looked like. The small group of bones, about as big as a cantaloupe, according to the article by Christopher Sloan about this discovery, was found in a place called Dakika, which means, appropriately enough, "the nipple," named after a mythical landmark, in a part of Ethiopia known as Dikika, very close to where the remains of the now famous Lucy skeleton were found in 1974.

And the child -- let's call her Little One -- belongs to the same ancient hominid species, Australopithecus afarensis, as her older relative, Lucy. But there is more to the child's skeleton than any that has been found so far -- a complete skull, rib cage, foot, leg, and arm bones. What these pieces tell us is that Little One could walk on two legs, but her hands say that she would be equally at home in the trees. Most importantly, it seems from the size of her brain that she would have been at the start of a longer and more necessarily sheltered childhood than those of, say, gorillas or monkeys. Little One probably lost her life in an accident in a river bed, perhaps a flood that buried her under silt and thus preserved much of the skeleton. It took the lead scientist of the expedition, Zeresenay Alemseged, five years to carefully remove the sandstone that had fossilized around the tiny skull and bones -- as he described the painstaking work, "grain by grain."

Based on the size of her teeth, the research team thinks she was about three years of age. She probably spent some of her day in trees, hanging from branches, but she does not have an opposable big toe for grasping, like apes, which meant that she probably had to be carried, and that her mother may have needed help from her group to find enough food for them both, which in turn may mean the emergence of a social order of things, which might even have included a rudimentary form of speech. Little One also has a hyoid bone in her throat, part of the early beginnings of the human voice box. Putting the pieces of this evolutionary puzzle back together is, of course, highly speculative. But it just may be that these tiny fragments of ancient life are starting to suggest something profoundly fascinating and important: those early stirrings of that state that we call childhood.

Copyright 2007 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."