The Australopithecus assemblage from Sterkfontein Member 4 (South Africa) and the concept of variation in palaeontology.
Interpreting morphological variation within the early hominin fossil record is particularly challenging. Apart from the fact that there is no absolute threshold for defining species boundaries in palaeontology, the degree of variation related to sexual dimorphism, temporal depth, geographic variation or ontogeny is difficult to appreciate in a fossil taxon mainly represented by fragmentary specimens, and such variation could easily be conflated with taxonomic diversity. One of the most emblematic examples in paleoanthropology is the Australopithecus assemblage from the Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa. Whereas some studies support the presence of multiple Australopithecus species at Sterkfontein, others explore alternative hypotheses to explain the morphological variation within the hominin assemblage. In this review, I briefly summarize the ongoing debates surrounding the interpretation of morphological variation at Sterkfontein Member 4 before exploring two promising avenues that would deserve specific attention in the future, that is, temporal depth and nonhuman primate diversity.
Funder: Claude Leon Foundation; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13039/501100001337
Funder: Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences
Funder: University of the Witwatersrand
Funder: French Institute of South Africa