14-year-long excavation reveals oldest Australopithecus in SA

2018-12-23 06:45
Professor Ron Clarke

Professor Ron Clarke (Paul Myburgh, Wits University)

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The 14-year-long excavation of Little Foot, a skeleton from the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa, has been described as one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made.

It reveals that she was the oldest skeleton in South Africa, details what happened to her after death, and says how she was preserved.

"It is the only complete, or virtually complete, Australopithecus skeleton from anywhere and furthermore, it is the oldest Australopithecus in South Africa. So, it is going to tell us a lot about our early ancestry," Professor Ron Clarke of the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute said.

The fossil, which is believed to be 3.67 million years old, was described for the first time by Clarke and his assistants, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe.

Clarke identified 12 foot and lower leg bones of one Australopithecus individual which were misidentified as animal fossils, in boxes stored at Sterkfontein and at the University of Witwatersrand in 1994 and 1997.

"This is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of human origins"

Following the discovery, Clark sent Motsumi and Molefe to search for any possible broken bone surface that might fit the bones he had discovered.

Two days later, in July 1997, they found a contact.

"The team found contacts with two broken-through shin bones in a concrete-like cave infill and started the excavation process, first with hammer and chisel to remove the overburden, before turning to the painstaking process of locating and exposing the bones with an airscribe (a thick vibrating needle)," Wits communication officer Refilwe Mabula said in a statement on Thursday.

"This is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of human origins research and it is a privilege to unveil a finding of this importance today," Clarke added.

The excavation process, which was said to have lasted for 20 years, revealed that the female Australopithecus was mummified during dry conditions after falling into a deep cave.

Vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib called the discovery a landmark achievement for the global scientific community.

"This is a landmark achievement for the global scientific community and South Africa's heritage. It is through important discoveries like Little Foot that we obtain a glimpse into our past which helps us to better understand our common humanity," Habib said.

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