The skeleton is believed to be the oldest fossil hominid skeleton ever found in South Africa.
Millions of years after making their first appearance on earth, humans are finally unlocking some of the mysteries of their own evolution.
Scientists in Johannesburg, South Africa have unveiled a near-complete fossil of a hominid skeleton, dating back 3.7 million years, making it the oldest fossil hominid skeleton ever found in Southern Africa.
Dubbed “Little Foot,” the skeleton was first discovered in 1994 by scientist Ron Clarke. He had been sorting through bones from the Sterkfontein cave system and discovered a small foot bone. He assumed that the bones came from an Australopithecus species, due to their size and the fact that they were prevalent in the area millions of years ago.
Then, three years later, Clarke discovered more bones that matched the first, in a cupboard at the medical school at the University of Witwatersrand. Finally, later that year, the rest of Little Foot’s body was discovered in a calcified cave. The cave had previously become famous for being the discovery site of Australopithecus africanus, another subspecies of Australopithecus.
The excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, and analysis of the skeleton took the team 20 years, with much of the process being done inside the cave. Aside from the challenges of excavating something so fragile, the environment itself posed issues. Working in dark, damp conditions with little circulated air in part prolonged the excavation process.
“The process required extremely careful excavation in the dark environment of the cave. Once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton’s bones were exposed, the breccia in which the undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning in the lab,” said Clarke.
The discovery of Little Foot is important to understanding the history of humankind in South Africa, as it reinforces the notion that South Africa was a major cradle of evolution and the site of many hominid ancestors habitats.
Though Clarke has released tiny bits of information on Little Foof over the past 20 years, this is the first time that the skeleton in its entirety will be shown to the public. Though the discovery is an important one, it’s not without its skeptics. While Clarke puts Little Foot’s age firmly at 3 million years old. some scientists believe it to be much younger than that.
Clarke, however, is not deterred by those who doubt him, claiming that whatever they say, the importance of the discovery is still great.
“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,” said Clarke.