By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A well-preserved set of 2-million-year-old fossils shows a part-human, part-ape species had hands similar to man, sophisticated ankles that helped in movement and a surprisingly tiny but advanced brain, a report released Thursday said.
The fossils, discovered in a sunken cave north of Johannesburg, may change views of the origins of humans. They show a combination of anatomical features never seen before, demonstrating close links to the species and humans.
"The many very advanced features found in the brain and body, and the earlier date make it possibly the best candidate ancestor for our genus, the genus Homo, more so than previous discoveries," said Lee Berger, at the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Berger and a team of experts examined fossils from the site, and in findings to be published in the prestigious periodical Science said they found the most complete hand on the species called hominins, the most complete, undistorted hip bone and well-preserved ankle bones.
"This is giving us insight, that isn't guesswork into an area of anatomy that is crucial and critical in how human walking evolved," Berger said of the foot and ankle bones.
The hand, which was described as a human-like at the end of an ape-like arm, had a precision grip that could have aided in making tools, said team member Tracy Kivell, a researcher at Germany's Max Planck Institute.
Its elongated thumb differs from that of apes and allows for it to grasp objects more firmly.
The grapefruit-sized brain of the hominins with a shape close to that of humans and may challenge theories about brain enlargement in human development, they said.
Since the discovery of the site in August 2008, 220 bones have been found of the early hominins, representing at least five individuals. The paper in Science is based on a detailed analysis of two of the individuals.
(Editing by Karolina Tagaris)