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Google Earth Unearths Ancient Human Ancestor

The new hominid species shared many traits, like walking upright, with early humans.

Thomas Claburn

April 8, 2010

3 Min Read

Google Earth has helped scientists locate a rare hominid fossil dating back almost 2 million years, a discovery that company chief technology advocate Michael Jones hails as one of the most significant palaeoanthropological finds in recent times.

Google is thrilled and delighted that its free mapping tools have contributed to the exploration and knowledge of the world, said Jones in a blog post. "With these tools, places both foreign and familiar can be explored with the click of a mouse, allowing for new understandings of geography, topology, urbanism, development, architecture and the environment."

Google Earth has played a role in a wide variety of endeavors, some positive, some negative, and some fanciful. The mapping application has assisted in the relief efforts for various natural disasters, like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. It has also been used to help track the spread of various forms of the flu.

It has played a role in the discovery of the Hickman Crater in Australia and a coral reef of the country's coast. It has helped locate an ancient Roman villa and new species of chameleons and butterflies. It has also helped identify a bovine propensity for facing the magnetic poles while grazing.

In 2007, The Daily Telegraph, citing unnamed British Army intelligence sources, said that insurgents in Basra, Iraq were using Google Earth to target attacks. Thieves have also used Google Earth to locate houses with lead components on their roofs, their goal being to steal the metal and resell it.

Google Earth has lead people erroneously to believe they've discovered the mythical city of Atlantis and has for several years been used to help track the progress of Santa Claus during the Christmas holiday season.

It has also been used to bust marijuana growers.

Governments around the world, such as those in India and China, remain wary of Google Earth and similar tools and have pressed for limits on mapping tools.

Both Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth have been used to spot Chinese and U.S. submarines.

The discovery Google announced on Thursday can be traced back to March 2008, when Professor Lee Berger from Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, began mapping caves and fossil locations that had been discovered. What began as an attempt to organize some 130 known cave sites and 20 fossil deposits grew to include almost 500 previously unknown caves and fossil sites, as Berger and his colleagues began to recognize the characteristics of these sites in Google Earth's satellite imagery.

At one of the sites, a new species, Australopithecus sediba, was discovered. The two partial skeletons found are estimated to be between 1.78 and 1.95 million years old.

"One of the most satisfying things about this sort of discovery is that it inspires further discovery by the next generation of explorers," said Jones in a video interview.

Google actively encourages researchers to use its tools for the advancement of science, through academic conferences and its Google Earth Outreach grant program. The company also operates a Geo Education program to help K-12 educators use its mapping tools.

But sometimes, a Google spokesperson said, the company is pleasantly surprised by unexpected uses of its technology.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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