The battered, almost complete skull and face of the flat-faced man of Kenya sit on display at the Koobi Fora Museum in Northern Kenya. These are not ordinary relics. Instead, they are the remains of a supposed ancestor of the man who has become known as Kenyanthropus platyops. His discovery in 1999 at Lomekwi in Lake Turkana triggered one of the most long-standing anthropological debates of our time. Fifteen years later, the debate continues.
Was the flat-faced man a new genus of early man, or was he a known one? Meave Leakey and her fellow researchers at the time claimed the find represented an entirely new branch on our family tree.
Until very recently, only three known groups existed. Two of these, Homo, from where we allegedly eventually evolved, and Paranthropus, were presumed to have descended from an older group, called Australopithecus.
Flat-faced man, unearthed by Justus Erus in the Nachukui Formation, is between 3.5 to 3.2 million years old. He has features that resemble those of Homo rudolfensis. Richard, Meave’s husband, discovered rudolfensis in 1970 on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. However, the existence of Kenyanthropus platyops means Homo rudolfensis may now need a reassignment.
But this reassignment may not happen until the scientific community agrees with Leakey. Most still insist flat-face man is a separate species of Australopithecus – Australopithecus platyops. Others think it a variant of Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.
The questions that linger about the flat-faced man who also answers to the number KNM-WT 400000 are:
- How big was flat-faced man’s kind? Was the difference in size between the males and females big?
- Is the flat-faced man more closely related to modern humans than Australopithecus afarensis?
- Does KNM-WT 40000 represent a new genus and species. Or are its unique skull traits a result of distortion caused by the process of deposition?
- Was KNM-WT 400000 male or female? It had small teeth that resemble those of a female. Yet, the temporal lines on the skull indicate larger chewing muscles more similar to many early human males.
- KNM-WT 40000 looked like KNM-ER 1470, another flat-faced human skull usually attributed to the Homo rudolfensis. Was the flat-face man the ancestor of Homo rudolfensis?
Before anthropologists could solve the riddle of the flat-faced man, another six-million-year-old hominid called Orrorin tugenensis resurfaced. Orrorin now occupies the seat of the oldest human-like creature known to science. Yet, interestingly, every one of these spectacular discoveries seems to be doing one thing – threatening to blur still further the already murky picture of man’s evolution.
Whatever Lake Turkana will reveal next, a visit to Koobi Fora Museum remains a fantastic bucket list idea for history buffs. So why not go check it out and make your discovery!