Who was Little Foot?

2009-03-20 00:00

Cape Town — The species and age of Little Foot, one of the world’s most famous fossils and the most complete Australopithecine discovered to date, has at last been established, 10 years later.

After a decade’s slow digging in the Silberberg cave of the Sterkfontein Caves north-west of Johannesburg, this hominid has been sufficiently exposed for Professor Ron Clarke of the Institute for Human Evolution and School of Anatomical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand to be prepared to identify the species in the latest issue of the South African Journal of Science.

He says Little Foot does not belong to the species Australopithecus afarensis or Australopithecus africanus, but to a unique Australopithecus species previously found at Makapansgat and Sterkfontein Member Four.

He also announced Little Foot’s age in the journal after paleomagnetism established that it was 3,3 million years old.

Clarke says that through the years it has become common practice to classify all the Australopithecus fossils (a particular genus) from Sterkfontein, Taung and Makapansgat as belonging to Australopithecus africanus, but that there are sufficient differences for there to be two forms of Australopithecus present here. It is not only about differences between the sexes, but clear morphological difference (i.e., differences in form).

In particular, the teeth, cheekbones, facial shape and profile and the jaws are different.

The second form is Paranthropus-like. This genus is classified on the basis of the large teeth and strong jaw muscles. They were able to make tools and the brain was slightly larger than that of Australopithecus.

Of all the fossils found at Sterkfontein since 1936, both hominid and animal, this one is most complete. Because Little Foot is so fragile, excavation has had to be extremely slow, but now its skull, both arms and hands, various ribs and vertebrae, both legs and some foot bones, pelvis, right collarbone, right shoulder blade and sacral bone have been exposed.

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