PARIS (AP) On a sheet of white paper, researchers Tuesday displayed a few tiny brown teeth and two doll-size forearm bones: the youngest human fossils ever found.
They came from two children, under 3 years old when they died, who lived 2 million years ago.
"The fossil babies are the youngest known representatives of their species, the flat-faced ape man, and are the precursors to modern man," said Dr. Andre Keyser of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, announcing the discovery by French and South African researchers.
Keyser said the fossil babies are extremely rare — only a handful exist in the world, and none of those are of individuals who were under 6 years of age.
The finds include a jaw with several baby teeth, one permanent molar, a frontal bone and two tiny forearm bones.
The university cosponsored the dig with France's Natural History Museum and the National Center for Scientific Research.
Keyser said the babies represent two distinct but related hominid species — homo and paranthropus — that lived in southern and eastern Africa about 2 million years ago, presumably coexisting without competing for food.
They are the oldest remains of hominids known to scholars.
The discoveries were made last summer at Drimolen, a fossil-rich site about 48 km from Pretoria, by French paleoanthropologists Dominique Gommery and Jose Braga, who were working under Keyser.
Keyser said it is the first time that fossil parts of a skull and skeleton belonging to the same individual have been found.
He said one baby tooth and two forearm bones were found less than 1 meter apart, embedded in rock.
"You can't imagine the emotion when you're digging with a trowel," Keyser said. "It's absolute fear because it's so easy to damage the fragile bones."
Keyser estimates the babies were under 3 years old when they died. He speculates that they were devoured by the large leopard-like cats that roamed the grassy plains in search of food.
"We have no proof, but it's quite easy to imagine the cats preying on small babies, and dragging their bodies into caves where they could eat without being attacked by other animals," he said.
Animal fossils also were found on the site.
Frontal bones outlining small eye sockets suggest that one baby's skull was about the size of a small grapefruit — much smaller than that of a 3-year-old toddler today.
"The skull of a young flat-faced ape man was about the size of the skull of a modern full-term fetus," Keyser said.
Skull size indicates brain size and development, and is crucial to grasping the extent of primitive man's early childhood development.
Drimolen houses an extensive network of caves that filled up with sediment over the years. The area under excavation runs about 65 meters long.
"Drimolen preserved fossils that would have been destroyed just about anywhere else," Keyser said. "It's a unique site."