The remains of our most ancient human ancestor ever discovered date back 3.67 million years and belong to a female Australopithecus prometheus unearthed in a cave in South Africa. Researchers have nicknamed her “Little Foot,” on account of her small features, that combine both human and ape-like traits.
“Little Foot” was discovered in 1994 by Prof. Ron Clarke, from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Clarke, a paleoanthropologist at the university’s Evolutionary Studies Institute, uncovered her remains deep within the Sterkfontein Caves nearly 25 miles (or about 40 kilometers) north-west of Johannesburg.
Initially, his team came across four small foot bones and several lower leg bone fragments in 1994 and 1997, while sorting through a box of fossils recovered from the Silberberg Grotto in Sterkfontein. The discovery of these ancient remains, which had been removed from the site more than a decade earlier, prompted the researchers to venture deep inside the cave, where they uncovered the rest of “Little Foot.”
“Many of the bones of the skeleton are fragile, yet they were all deeply embedded in a concrete-like rock called breccia,” Clarke explains in a statement.
It took the team 20 years to gather, analyze, clean, cast, and piece together the bones before presenting them to the public. Two decades after she first emerged from the Sterkfontein Caves, “Little Foot” was finally ready for her big unveiling.
Assembling "Little Foot," the oldest hominid skeleton ever found in the region, was an effort that took more than 20 years https://t.co/fo78pJuMZM— National Geographic (@NatGeo) December 7, 2017
The nearly-complete skeleton was displayed yesterday (December 6) at the university’s Hominin Vault, in the first public appearance of “Little Foot.”
“My assistants and I have worked on painstakingly cleaning the bones from breccia blocks and reconstructing the full skeleton until the present day,” Clarke disclosed.
By all accounts, “Little Foot” is a genuine rarity. Paleoanthropologists seldom come across fossilized skeletons, while complete skeletons are considered a Holy Grail, notes National Geographic.
Fascinating! After 20 years of excavation and reconstruction, #LittleFoot is unveiled! Prof Ron Clarke, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe found this Australopithecus skeleton of a human ancestor pre-dating 1.5 million years in Sterkfontein Caves outside Johannesburg in 1997. pic.twitter.com/DssqKH1ZPP— Ulrich J van Vuuren (@UlrichJvV) December 6, 2017
Nevertheless, “Little Foot’s” remains are “by far the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor older than 1.5 million years ever found,” announced the university in a press release.
The ancient skeleton in more than 90 percent complete, and it’s only missing parts of its feet, pelvis, and kneecaps.
By comparison, the famous Lucy — the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis female unearthed in 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia, and from whom “Little Foot” has now stolen the crown as the oldest human ancestor ever discovered — is only 40 percent intact, and headless.
“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.”
According to Clarke, the public unveiling of “Little Foot” boasts “a lot of firsts.”
“It’s the first complete skeleton adult, it is the first skeleton that has a complete arm and a complete leg in one individual that can be compared, and it is the oldest in Southern Africa,” he said in a statement for Eyewitness News.
In addition to being the most complete skeleton of an Australopithecus ever uncovered anywhere in the world, as well as the oldest fossil hominid skeleton ever found in Southern Africa, “Little Foot” is also the first almost intact pre-human ancestor to be excavated in the place where she was fossilized, the university points out.
Now that the world has seen “Little Foot” for the first time in all her splendor, we will be able to learn more about our early ancestral relatives. The researchers involved in her discovery are planning to publish a series of more than 25 scientific papers on the appearance, full skeletal anatomy, limb lengths and locomotor abilities of Australopithecus prometheus, reports CNN.