Dr Yohannes among Top 10 People Who Mattered in Science in 2019

19 Dec 2019

Dr Yohannes Haile-Selassie has been named among “Ten people who mattered in science in 2019” by the prestigious journal Nature.

Dr Yohannes, Curator of Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is recognised for his discovery of a 3.8-million-year-old fossil cranium of an early human ancestor in Ethiopia.

It was a pale, circular shape on the ground, about the width of a grapefruit, that caught the attention of Dr Yohannes when he was investigating a site in the northern Ethiopian desert in February 2016. The object was jutting out of the parched earth just 3 metres away from a jawbone found by a goat herder a few hours earlier. “Before I picked it up, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is something.’”

The fossils together formed a remarkably complete early hominin skull, which Haile-Selassie’s team dated to 3.8 million years old. It belongs to a species called Australopithecus anamensis — the oldest and most elusive known human relative.

The skull, known as ‘MRD’ and revealed to the world in August 2019, gave researchers their first look at the face of this enigmatic ancient relative, which was previously known from just a few bone fragments. Palaeo-anthropologists are impressed by the specimen, and some say it is rivalled only by Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton fossil of the closely related species Australopithecus afarensis.

Dr Yohannes is considered one of the field’s most talented fossil finders. Many treasures have surfaced from his project in Woranso-Mille, a region scattered with hominin fossils from the Pliocene, a key period in the evolution of the genus Homo and its close relative Australopithecus between 5.3 million and 2.6 million years ago. He is also one of a crop of Ethiopian palaeo-anthropologists who lead major scientific projects in their homeland – a big shift from a generation ago, when foreigners oversaw most of the research in this fossil-rich nation.

Nature’s 10 is the journal’s annual list of ten people who mattered in science this year. They might have achieved amazing discoveries or brought attention to crucial issues. Although not an award or a ranking, Nature’s 10 highlights individuals who had a role in some of the year’s most significant moments in science.

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