One Of The Most Complete Early Hominin Skeletons Ever Discovered Revealed In South Africa

Professor Ron Clarke slowly freeing the skull from the solid rock it was preserved in. Wits University

One of the oldest and most complete hominin fossils has just been revealed in South Africa. After two decades of being excavated, cleaned, and pieced together, the skeleton will now be studied to see what can be learned from this early human ancestor.

Known as "Little Foot", the skeleton is thought to date to around 3.67 million years ago, so it's roughly half a million years older than that of the famous fossil of Lucy discovered in Ethiopia, although it is important to note that this dating is disputed. Little Foot belongs to the same genus as Lucy, Australopithecus, but likely represents a different species of the early hominins.

The name derives from the moment that Professor Ron Clarke first came across the incredible find in 1994. Coming from a series of caves around 40 kilometers (25 miles) north-west of Johannesburg, Clarke found four small foot bones, before coming across the fragments of a lower leg bone that had been removed by miners a few years earlier.

The skull of Little Foot as it was found cemented into the floor of the cave. Wits University

On the basis of this, the researchers went back to the original in 1997 and amazingly found that there were still bone fragments sticking out of the ground. Because of the rock in which the bones had been preserved, it took until 2012 for all the skeleton to be excavated. “My assistants and I have worked on painstakingly cleaning the bones from breccia blocks and reconstructing the full skeleton until the present day,” said Clarke.

The fact that breccia is as strong as cement is the reason it has taken the team this long to finally extract and clean every bone, but it is also the precise reason why the skeleton has been preserved in such exquisite detail in the first place.

The three researchers - Professor Ron Clarke, Stephen Motsumi, and Nkwane Molefe - have spent 20 years excavating and cleaning the remains. Wits University

The current thinking is that a young female Australopithecus was once walking across the landscape, before falling down a shaft into the caves where she then died, only to be dug up again some 3.6 million years later.  

Little Foot is the first almost-complete human ancestor fossil to have been excavated where it was fossilized, say the researchers, as well as the most complete hominin older than 1.5 million years. It is hoped that this will allow scientists an unprecedented view of the early evolution of the lineage that eventually gave rise to us.

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