Human Ancestors - Paranthropus Group

As life on Earth evolved, human ancestors began to branch off from primates. While this idea has been controversial since Charles Darwin first published his Theory of Evolution, more and more fossil evidence has been discovered by scientists over time. The idea that humans evolved from a "lower" life form is still debated by many religious groups and other individuals.

The Paranthropus Group of human ancestors help link the modern human to earlier human ancestors and give us a good idea of how ancient humans lived and evolved. With three known species falling into this grouping, there are still many things unknown about human ancestors at this time in the history of life on Earth. All species within the Paranthropus Group have a skull structure suitable for heavy chewing.

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Paranthropus aethiopicus

Model of a Paranthropus aethiopicus -- Natural History Museum, London (2008).

 Nrkpan/Wikimedia Commons

The Paranthropus aethiopicus was first discovered in Ethiopia in 1967 but wasn't accepted as a new species until a full skull was discovered in Kenya in 1985. Even though the skull was very similar to Australopithecus afarensis, ti was determined not to be in the same genus as the Australopithecus Group based on the shape of the lower jaw. The fossils are thought to be between 2.7 million and 2.3 million years old.

Since there are very few fossils of Paranthropus aethiopicus that have been discovered, not much is known about this species of human ancestor. Since only the skull and a single mandible have been confirmed to be from the Paranthropus aethiopicus, there is no real evidence of limb structure or how they walked or lived. Only a vegetarian diet has been determined from the available fossils.

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Paranthropus boisei

Scientific reconstruction of Paranthropus boisei -- Westfälisches Museum für Archäologie, Herne.

Lillyunfreya/Wikimedia Commons 

The Paranthropus boisei lived 2.3 million to 1.2 million years ago on the Eastern side of the continent of Africa. The first fossils of this species were uncovered in 1955, but Paranthropus boisei was not officially declared a new species until 1959. Even though they were similar in height to the Australopithecus africanus, they were much heavier with a broader face and larger brain case.

Based on examining fossilized teeth of the Paranthropus boisei species, they seemed to prefer eating soft food like fruit. However, their immense chewing power and extremely large teeth would allow them to eat rougher foods like nuts and roots if they had to in order to survive. Since most of the Paranthropus boisei habitat was a grassland, they may have had to eat tall grasses at some points throughout the year.

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Paranthropus robustus

The original complete skull (without mandible) of a 1,8 million years old Paranthropus robustus discovered in South Africa. Collection of the Transvaal Museum, Northern Flagship Institute, Pretoria South Africa.

José Braga, Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons (CC by 4.0)

Paranthropus robustus is the last of the Paranthropus Group of human ancestors. This species lived between 1.8 million and 1.2 million years ago in South Africa. Even though the name of the species has "robust" in it, they were actually the smallest of the Paranthropus Group. However, their faces and cheekbones were very "robust", thus leading to the name of this particular species of human ancestor. The Paranthropus robustus also had very large teeth in the back of their mouths for grinding hard foods.

The larger face of the Paranthropus robustus allowed for big chewing muscles to anchor to the jaws so they could eat tough foods like nuts. Just like the other species in the Paranthropus Group, there is a large ridge on the top of the skull where the big chewing muscles attached. They are also thought to have eaten everything from nuts and tubers to fruits and leaves to insects and even meat from small animals. There is no evidence that they made their own tools, but the Paranthropus robustus could possibly have used animal bones as a sort of digging tool to find insects in the ground.

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Scoville, Heather. "Human Ancestors - Paranthropus Group." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Scoville, Heather. (2020, August 28). Human Ancestors - Paranthropus Group. Retrieved from Scoville, Heather. "Human Ancestors - Paranthropus Group." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).