Four new studies have just been published on the 3.67-million-year-old hominin called “Little Foot” that was recovered very close to Johannesburg, South Africa, with its name attributed to its incredibly tiny foot bones.
As Live Science reports, the excavation work that has been required to successfully retrieve “Little Foot” from South African soil has been ongoing for the past 20 years. Scientists have now fully recovered, and cleaned, what is very close to being the complete skeleton of the hominin — who belongs to the genus Australopithecus.
Part of the reason why the bones were so difficult to retrieve is that these remains were exceedingly soft compared with the rocks that they had been encased in for over 3 million years, and scientists had to take great care not to damage them.
Scientists were first alerted to “Little Foot” back in 1994, when paleoanthropologist Ronald Clarke spied some intriguingly small bones that had been previously unearthed from the Sterkfontein caves. While researchers had originally thought that the bones in this collection belonged to monkeys, further study of them showed that some of the bones actually belonged to a new species of hominin.
It was Clarke who determined that “Little Foot” belonged to the Australopithecus genus, with this name translating to “southern ape.” Astoundingly, the skeletal remains of “Little Foot” are 90 percent complete — and this even surpasses the skeleton of the famous “Lucy,” as scientists have only recovered 40 percent of her skeletal remains.
As musculoskeletal biologist Robin Crompton explained, the completed excavation of “Little Foot” marks the first time in history that scientists have been able to retrieve such a large proportion of the skeletal remains of a hominin, which is “almost a miracle.”
“We have, for the first time so far anywhere in the world for early human relatives, and the only time until the Nariokotome Homo erectus boy at 1.5 million years old, far younger than her 3.67 million-year-old age, complete upper and lower limb bones, so estimation of bone lengths, which is common practice but obviously has its risks, is unnecessary.”
In terms of stature, “Little Foot” was a vegetarian female who is estimated to have been roughly 4-foot, 3-inches tall when standing fully upright. Crucially, it was also discovered that, unlike her predecessors, her arms were shorter and not as long as her legs. Scientists believe that her arms and legs would actually have been remarkably similar to modern humans today, according to Crompton.
“My analysis of her skeleton shows that she, and the rest of the local population of her species at that time, were under active natural selection for an ability to walk efficiently, fully upright, on the ground over medium to long distances.”
Since the excavation of “Little Foot” was just recently completed, there are now four different studies available to read. These studies have not had time to be peer-reviewed as yet, but are available on bioRxiv.