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Homo Erectus Discovery
APRIL 2005
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Homo Erectus Discovery @ National Geographic Magazine
By Josh Fischman Photographs by Kenneth Garrett
Photo illustration (above) by John Gurche
Our ancestors had already ventured out of Africa 1.8 million years ago—and settled in the republic of Georgia.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Across a dusty courtyard at the Georgian State Museum, up three flights of stone steps, and down a long hallway, humanity's distant past lies waiting. On a table in a high-ceilinged room rests a replica of a skull, empty eye sockets peering over the plaster wrapping around the lower face. "But let me show you the real thing," says David Lordkipanidze, a paleo-anthropologist and the director of the museum in Tbilisi, capital of this former Soviet republic.

Lordkipanidze slowly lifts the lids of four wooden boxes, one by one. Inside are bare skulls, nearly 1.8 million years old. "Here, this is our teenager," he says. The skull does look youthful, with small, even graceful features, some of the teeth not yet fully grown in. "And this is what we're calling the old man," he continues. Again, the skull is humanlike but small. But the remarkable feature is the mouth.

Not only are there no teeth, but nearly all the sockets are smooth, filled in by bone that grew over the spaces. The jaws look like two crescent moons. Although it's hard to be sure of his age, "it looks like he was maybe about 40, and the bone regrowth shows he lived for a couple of years after his teeth fell out," says the anthropologist. "This is really incredible." How did the toothless old man survive, unable to chew his food? Maybe his companions helped him, says Lordkipanidze. If so, those toothless jaws might testify to something like compassion, stunningly early in human evolution. You have to flash forward more than one and a half million years, to the Neanderthals of Ice Age Europe, to see anything comparable.

He smiles and spreads his arms to encompass the old man, the teenager, and two more skulls. "We hit the jackpot."

Lordkipanidze and his colleagues hit it in a very unexpected place: not in Africa, home to famous fossils like Lucy and famous sites like Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, but well to the north, in Georgia, where Europe ends and Asia begins.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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