COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- A professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia is part of a group of international researchers who have discovered a 1.4 million-year-old human hand bone.
The Columbia Daily Tribune reports the bone is believed to be the earliest evidence of the modern hand.
Pathology and anatomical sciences professor Carol Ward said the significance of the discovery is that researchers now know the modern human hand appeared very early in human evolution.
“We all knew the earliest archaic members of our species, even Neanderthals, all had human hands, but we didn’t know when those hands appeared,” Ward said.
The recently discovered bone is the third metacarpal in the hand, which connects to the middle finger. Ward said what makes the bone so special is a projection of bone at the end of the wrist that helps it lock into the wrist bones. That allows for greater amounts of pressure to be applied to the wrist and hand from a grasping thumb and fingers. Ward said it is this advanced hand that allows humans to create complex tools and technology.
Ward said she and the West Turkana Paleo Project team and their searchers near Lake Turkana in Kenya have found some of the most significant fossils for understanding human evolution.
“We just walk over the surface to see what fossils are eroding out. In doing that, one of the researchers noticed this metacarpal, this perfectly preserved metacarpal just sitting on the surface,” Ward said.
Ward said she was not in the field, but teaching at the University of Missouri when the discovery was made. Ward said all the fossils discovered must stay at the National Museum of Kenya, so a cast of the fossil was sent to her in April. “I took one look at it and immediately knew it was really significant,” she said.
Ward said in June the team returned to the area of discovery, but didn’t find anything else.
A study about the discovery of the bone was published Dec. 16 by the National Academy of Sciences.