The state of South Africa as an important cradle in the African nursery of humanity has been reinforced by today's presentation of "Little Foot", the oldest and virtually complete human fossil ancestor in the country.
Little Foot is the only practically complete Australopithecus fossil discovered to date. It is by far the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor of more than 1.5 million years. It is also the oldest fossil hominid in southern Africa, dating back 3.67 million years. The presentation will be the first time that completely clean and reconstructed schemes can be seen by national and international media.
Discovered by Professor Ron Clarke of the Institute of Evolutionary Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, Professor Phillip Tobias gave it the nickname "Little Foot", based on Clarke's initial discovery of four small footbones. Their discovery is expected to add a wealth of knowledge about the appearance, complete skeletal anatomy, limb length and locomotor abilities of one of the species of our early ancestral relatives.
"This is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of research into human origins and it is a privilege to discover a finding of this importance today," says Clarke.
Professor Ron Clarke of Wits University is shown with the skull of Little Foot. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
After remaining undiscovered for more than 3.6 million years in the Sterkfontein caves about 40 km northwest of Johannesburg, Clarke found several bones of the feet and the lower part of the leg fragments in 1994 and 1997, among other fossils that had been removed from rocks thrown from the cave years before by lime miners. Clarke sent his assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe to the deep underground cave to look for any possible broken bone surface that might fit with the bones he had discovered in boxes. Within two days of searching, they found such contact, in July 1997.
Clarke realized shortly after the discovery that they were in something highly significant and began the specialized process of excavating the skeleton in the cave until 2012, when the last visible elements were removed to the surface in gap blocks. "My assistants and I have worked on carefully cleaning the bones of the breccia blocks and rebuilding the entire skeleton to this day," says Clarke.
In the 20 years since the discovery, they have been working hard to dig and prepare the fossil. Now Clarke and a team of international experts are conducting a full set of scientific studies on the subject. It is expected that the results of these studies will be published in a series of scientific articles in high impact international journals and peer-reviewed in the near future.
This is the first time that a practically complete skeleton of a prehuman ancestor of a South African cave has been excavated in the place where it was fossilized.
"Many of the skeletal bones are fragile, but they were deeply embedded in a concrete rock called a gap," Clarke explains.
"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 breach in which their lower parts were still embedded had to be carefully cut and removed in blocks for more cleaning in the laboratory at Sterkfontein, "says Clarke.
Skull and bones embedded in breach at the site of discovery in the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa. (Youtube Screenshot )
The long period of 20 years of excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting and analysis of the skeleton has required a constant source of funding, which was provided by the Paleontological Scientific Trust (PAST) – an NGO based in Johannesburg that promotes research, education and outreach in the sciences related to our origins. Among its many initiatives aimed at raising the sciences of origin throughout Africa, PAST has been a great funder of research at Sterkfontein for more than two decades.
Professor Adam Habib, vice chancellor and director of the University of Witwatersrand says: "This is a historic achievement for the global scientific community and the heritage of South Africa." It is through important discoveries such as Little Foot that we get a look at our past that helps us to better understand our common humanity. "