Karabo to get to the bone of mankind

2012-07-14 15:12

When scientists write about him, they call him MH1, but generally he is known as Karabo.

He is a small man, he lives in a case and he has got into the habit of constantly shifting our scientific boundaries.

When Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand announced nearly two years ago that he had discovered a new species of primitive man at the Cradle of Humankind, west of Johannesburg, the news appeared on the cover of Science, the world’s leading scientific magazine.

It was described as one of the greatest palaeontological discoveries in South Africa.

Although the bones of a few members of the species Australopithecus sediba were found in the Malapa cave, most of the focus was on Karabo, a little man of less than 1.5m tall.

Several of his bones were found.

In the past week, the latest of many discoveries have been made about Karabo.

While previous research about Karabo was based on a few skeletal remains stored in cases and drawers at Wits, it now looks as if previously undiscovered bones belonging to him have been found deeply embedded in another rock from the Malapa cave.

If these bones can be removed from the rock and it can be proved that they belong to Karabo, it will make him the most complete fossil of an early species of man yet discovered.

No bones of early man – such as a full femur – have ever been discovered before in such a well-preserved state, says Berger.

Scientists already have enough bones to make up 40% of his skeleton.

The additional bones, which include teeth, ribs and a thigh bone, will make him a lot more complete.

In comparison, scientists have only about a third of the bones of the well-known Lucy fossil.

In Australopithecus sediba, scientists have the most well-preserved hand, foot and pelvis of any species of primitive man ever discovered.

And it looks as if these discoveries will be yielding new information about the pre-history of man for many years to come.

The latest discoveries were made when Justin Mukanku, one of the researchers working on the Malapa fossils, noticed a small, white piece of bone in a rock that had been dug up.

The rock was lying around in the Wits laboratory.

When it appeared that the piece of bone was a tooth and that it fitted precisely into Karabo’s jaw, the rock was sent to Johannesburg’s Charlotte Maxeke Hospital to be scanned.

The scans revealed that the rock was full of bones.

Now researchers have started the process of opening up the rock to see exactly what is inside.

This work will take place in an open laboratory at the Maropeng Museum at the Cradle of Humankind so that the public can watch.

What’s the next thing that can be expected of Karabo?

“Now we really are going to extend the borders of science,” Berger said.

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