Oldest, most complete fossil of human ancestor ‘Little Foot’ unveiled

Oldest, most complete fossil of human ancestor 'Little Foot' unveiled
Credit: Wits University

For the first time ever, the oldest and most complete fossil of human ancestor ‘Little Foot’ was unveiled for viewing by the national and international media.

Little Foot is the only known virtually complete Australopithecus fossil discovered to date. It is by far the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor older than 1.5 million years ever found. It is also the oldest fossil hominid in southern Africa, dating back 3.67 million years.

The fossil of the hominid was discovered by Professor Ron Clarke from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. The fossil was given the nickname of “Little Foot” by Prof. Phillip Tobias, based on Clarke’s initial discovery of four small footbones. Its discovery is expected to add a wealth of knowledge about the appearance, full skeletal anatomy, limb lengths and locomotor abilities of one of the species of our early ancestral relatives.

After lying undiscovered for more than 3.6 million years deep within the Sterkfontein caves about 40km north-west of Johannesburg, Clarke found several foot bones and lower leg bone fragments in 1994 and 1997 among other fossils that had been removed from rock blasted from the cave years earlier by lime miners. Clarke sent his assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe into the deep underground cave to search 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 a contact, in July 1997.

Clarke realised soon after the discovery that they were on to something highly significant and started the specialised process of excavating the skeleton in the cave up through 2012, when the last visible elements were removed to the surface in blocks of breccia. “My assistants and I have worked on painstakingly cleaning the bones from breccia blocks and reconstructing the full skeleton until the present day,” says Clarke.

In the 20 years since the discovery, they have been hard at work to excavate and prepare the fossil. Now Clarke and a team of international experts are conducting a full set of scientific studies on it. The results of these studies are expected to be published in a series of scientific papers in high impact, peer reviewed international journals in the near future.

This is the first time that a virtually complete skeleton of a pre-human ancestor from a South African cave has been excavated in the place where it was fossilised.

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Alexander Forster
Alexander is an Australian who has also lived in Europe and is currently based in the US. He holds a bachelors degree in medical research with first class honours in neuroscience. Alexander enjoys writing in a range of fields in health science research.

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