WATCH: Little Foot not so little after all

Professor Ron Clarke unveiled the complete skeleton of Little Foot at the University of Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute yesterday, 6 December and also revealed that Little Foot is much larger than its names suggests.

In a statement released to the media it was made known that after 20 years of painstaking excavation and preparation, Clarke has introduced the most complete Australopithecus fossil ever found to the world.

Prof Clarke at the excavation site.

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.

Also Read: Homo naledi: How old is it really

Discovered by Clarke, the fossil was given the nickname of Little Foot by Professor Phillip Tobias, based on Clarke’s initial discovery of four small foot bones. Its discovery is expected to add a wealth of knowledge about the appearance, full skeletal anatomy, limb lengths and loco-motor abilities of one of the species of our early ancestral relatives.

Professor Ron Clarke taking a closer look at Little Foot. Photos: Wits University.

“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,” said Clarke.

After lying undiscovered for more than 3,6 million years deep within the Sterkfontein Caves, 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 starting their search in July 1997, they found what they were looking for.

Clarke’s assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe.

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, which took until 2012, when the last visible elements were removed to the surface in blocks of breccia.

“My assistants and I have worked painstakingly ever since, cleaning the bones from the breccia blocks and reconstructing the full skeleton,” said Clarke.

Prof Clarke during the unveiling.

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.

Excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting, and analysis of the skeleton has required a steady source of funding, which was provided­­­­­ by the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) – a Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation that promotes research, education and outreach in the sciences related to our origins. Among its many initiatives aimed at uplifting the origin sciences across Africa, PAST has been a major funder of research at Sterkfontein for over two decades.

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Janine Viljoen

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