"Little Foot" is the oldest fossil hominid skeleton ever found in southern Africa, the lead scientist who examined the finding said Wednesday.
The fossil skeleton takes its name from the small bones of the foot discovered by the scientist Ron Clarke in 1994 when he was classifying bones in boxes of the Sterkfontein cave system. Even then, Clarke supposed that the fossilized bones came from a species of Australopithecus: the human ancestors, small and simian, that wandered through this part of Africa millions of years ago.
In 1997 he found more bones in a closet in the school hospital of the University of the Witwatersrand. The rest of Little Foot was found embedded in the old calcified cave in 1997 and the excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting and analysis lasted 20 years. Much of the work was carried out inside the cave system, working on a rock similar to the concrete called breach, using aerial scribes to avoid breaking the fragile and inestimable fossil remains.
"The process required an extremely careful excavation in the dark environment of the cave." Once the upward facing surfaces of the bones of the skeleton were exposed, the gap in which the lower faces were still embedded had to be carefully cut and removed in blocks for more cleaning in the lab, "Clarke said.
The Sterkfontein cave system became famous in the 1930s with the discovery of an adult Australopithecus africanus.
The team says that Little Foot is of a second species, Australopithecus prometheus, which was named in 1948 from fragmentary fossils.
The finding reinforces the belief that South Africa was an important cradle of human evolution, presenting diverse hominid ancestors.
For years, information has leaked on the importance of the finding, but this is the first time that the fossil skeleton will be released in the vault of the Institute of Evolutionary Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.
By placing the fossils more than 3 million years old, Clarke is forced to rekindle a debate about the age of the find, which has been disputed over the years. Some scientists have given it a much more recent place in the human evolutionary tree.
"This is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of research into human origins and it is a privilege to reveal a finding of this importance," said Clarke.
The results of decades of studies will soon be published in a series of more than 25 scientific articles, say the scientists involved.