Selam: the oldest child in the world

Selam (“peace” in Ethiopian) is the name given by researchers to the 3.3 million year old child who was found on the banks of the River Awash in Ethiopia. She came from the same species as Lucy, one of our ancient ancestors.

10 December 2000. Zeresenay Alemseged, a young Ethiopian palaeontologist feels his heart pounding in his chest. In front of him lies the top of a skull. For days, this is precisely what his team has been searching for in the sandy hills of north-east Ethiopia. In fact the dig site, Dikika, is only 6 miles from the place where the famous remains of Lucy, the young australopithecine female who died 3.2 million years ago, were found. And having unearthed a number of animal fossils, Zeresenay has been hoping to discover another skeleton from the same species. Now all he wants to do is dash off to the National Museum in Addis Ababa to compare the skull he has found with some others. Because even though he is sure that the fossil he has found comes from the Hominidae family, which includes the gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo and man, he is not yet able to establish whether it is in fact a member of the same species as Lucy, who was from the Australopithecus family (hominids who lived between 4.5 and 1 million years ago, walked upright and had a basic knowledge of working with stone).

Bingo! This time he is absolutely positive that he has found a real treasure. Having made the first observations of the inclination of the neck, the shape of the jaw and the arch of the eyebrows, the fossilized skull he has found is definitely from the same species as Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis. Yet there is even more to this discovery. As the skull is so small, it must have been a child. His team has also unearthed a shoulder blade and some vertebrae. And the scientist is confident they will find more bones when they dig deeper. In short, Zeresenay knows that he will soon have a young skeleton of the Australopithecus species, more complete than Lucy’s. And while palaeontologists are used to finding children’s fossils from the Neanderthal species (European hominids who lived between 120,000 and 35,000 years ago), young Australopithecus fossils are much rarer (only around 20 in total) and generally consist of no more than a few bones or teeth! The fossilized remains of this child are therefore truly exceptional. However, there is a lot more work to do before it can really be brought into the limelight...

First of all, Zeresenay has to go back to Dikika to exhume other pieces of the skeleton. Three new expeditions will be carried out in 2002 and 2003 to unearth the bones from the arms, hands, legs and feet. Then the sandstone encasing the bones will need to be removed (there are substantial sandstone deposits in the rivers). In the laboratories of the National Museum of Ethiopia, Zeresenay will need to spend thousands of hours removing the entire rigid casing from the skull and other parts of the skeleton under the microscope, grain by grain. Finally, they will also need to study the animal fossils that were found near Selam (to find out in which kind of environment the young Australopithecus lived) and date the rocks in which the fossils were lying. All of this is going to take quite some time - around six years in all! But it will all be worth it in the end. In September 2006, Zeresenay and his team will finally be able to report that Selam was a girl who lived 3.3 million years ago, that she was three years old when she died, and that she used her legs and her arms to move around both on the ground and in trees.

We can tell in which period Selam walked on earth with her parents by dating the rocks in which her skeleton was entombed. Regarding the fossils found with her, these include elephant, hippopotamus, rhinoceros and antelope. They tell us that Selam lived in an area where there were streams and rivers, wooded islands and savannah. The absence of any evidence of bites on her skeleton tells the scientists that it is likely her body was quickly buried by sediment in a flood. As for the age of the child, this was determined by counting her milk teeth and by looking at which of her adult teeth were ready to come through using a scanner : their development was similar to that of a three year old chimpanzee. By measuring the diameter of the teeth that were still embedded in her jaw, Zeresenay and his team were able to conclude that this was indeed a girl, since some of the teeth are smaller in diameter in females. Finally, the shape of her feet, knees and the bones in her legs, as well as the position of the “foramen magnum” (an aperture through which the spinal cord joins the brain) tell the scientists that Selam walked upright. However, her phalanx and her shoulder blades look alike those of a young gorilla, leading us to believe that she was also a good climber. This undoubtedly would have allowed her to take cover in the trees in times of danger…  

The fossilized remains of Selam can tell us many other things. For example, a small bone was found in the larynx, which plays an essential role in the ability to produce sounds and therefore make speech. But many of the bones still remain entombed in their sandstone casing. Zeresenay still has his work cut out if he wants to find out what story they have to tell!

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