|Skull of Paranthropus boisei|
Paranthropus (from Greek παρα, para "beside"; άνθρωπος, ánthropos "human") is a genus of extinct hominins that lived between 2.6 and 1.1 million years ago (mya). Also known as robust australopithecines, they were bipedal and probably descended from Australopithecus) 2.7 mya.
The genus is characterised by robust skulls, with a prominent gorilla-like sagittal crests along the midline–which suggest strong chewing muscles–and broad, grinding herbivorous teeth. They likely consumed grasses and tough vegetation.
A partial cranium and mandible of Paranthropus robustus was discovered in 1938 by a schoolboy, Gert Terblanche, at Kromdraai B (70 km south west of Pretoria) in South Africa. It was described as a new genus and species by Robert Broom of the Transvaal Museum. The site has been excavated since 1993 by Francis Thackeray of the Transvaal Museum. A date of at least 1.95 million years has been obtained for Kromdraai B.
Paranthropus boisei was discovered by Mary Leakey on July 17, 1959, at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania (specimen OH 5). Her husband Louis considered naming it Titanohomo mirabilis, but instead decided on Zinjanthropus boisei in his 1959 Nature publication. "Zinj" is an ancient Arabic word for the coast of East Africa, and "boisei" referred to Charles Watson Boise, an anthropological benefactor of the Leakeys.
However, this genus was rejected at Louis's presentation before the 4th Pan-African Congress on Prehistory as it was based on a single specimen, and was subsumed into Paranthropus. Austrian anthropologist Raymond Dart made his now famous remark, "…what would have happened if [the A. africanus specimen] Mrs. Ples had met Dear Boy [OH 5] one dark night."
Currently, opinions differ whether Paranthropus is a synonym of Australopithecus. In either case, robust australopithecines are thought to have evolved from gracile Australopithecus. In 2004, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins noted "perhaps several different species" of robust australopithecines, and "as usual their affinities, and the exact number of species, are hotly disputed."
Paranthropus had a massively built skull, with a prominent gorilla-like sagittal crest on the midline of the skull which anchored massive temporalis muscles used in chewing. Most species had a brain about 40% the size of that of a modern human.
Paranthropus were bipeds, and their hips, legs, and feet resemble both its ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, and modern humans. There was some size variation between the different species, but most stood roughly 1.3 to 1.4 m (4 ft 3 in to 4 ft 7 in) tall and were quite well muscled. The pelvis is similar to A. afarensis, but the hip joint are smaller in Paranthropus. The similar hip structure between A. afarensis and Paranthropus implies that they had a similar walking gait. However, their human-like big toe, well developed plantar aponeurosis, and more distal ankle joint show more support to the foot bones, and a human "toe-off" gait cycle.
Paranthropus first appeared roughly 2.7 million years ago (mya), and Australopithecus had mostly disappeared by this time. Paranthropus is known to have coexisted with H. habilis, and possibly H. erectus.
Paranthropus had smaller braincases than Homo, yet they had significantly larger braincases than Australopithecus. Paranthropus is associated with stone tools both in southern and eastern Africa, although these tools are generally attributed to early Homo. However, hand fossils from Swartkrans, South Africa, indicate that the hand of P. robustus was adapted for precision grasping, which could indicate and tool use. Most Paranthropus species seem almost certainly not to have used language nor to have controlled fire, although they are directly associated with the latter at Swartkrans.
Paranthropus are thought to have lived in wooded areas rather than the grasslands of Australopithecus. A study looking at carbon isotopes on the tooth enamel of P. boisei found that it heavily subsisted on C4 plants, possibly habitually consuming grasses (graminivore). Another study looking at enamel fractures on their large molars found habitual consumption of tough vegetation (though not hard foods).
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