It is remarkable how one fossil can embody so much of what PAST stands for and how it came to be. Such is the case with the 3.67 million-year-old pre-human fossil skeleton nicknamed Little Foot from South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves. In July, PAST used a short visit of Little Foot’s skull to the U.K. for specialised scientific study to introduce audiences in London and Oxford to our work in funding research on Africa’s rich fossil heritage and engaging the public about its great social value.
As a continuation of PAST’s 25th-anniversary celebrations, we co-hosted three events in the U.K. that featured a lecture on Little Foot by the skeleton’s discoverer, Prof Ron Clarke, and presentations on PAST’s mission and programmes by PAST’s Chairman Rick Menell, CEO Andrea Leenen and Chief Scientist Prof Rob Blumenschine.
Our three co-hosts for the events typify the manner in which PAST brings together government, business and public education institutions to promote the African origin sciences. The first event took place at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, beginning what PAST hopes will become a long-term partnership in public engagement in the origin sciences such as that which we enjoy with museums across southern and East Africa. The next event took place at the London offices of the Standard Bank, PAST’s principal corporate sponsor for over two decades. The final event was co-hosted by the South African High Commission in London. In her address to open the event, the High Commissioner, H.E. Nomatemba Tambo, highlighted the 18-year partnership PAST has maintained with the South African government to fund research, educate youth, and engage the public in the origin sciences.
At the events, we recounted the close linkages between PAST, Little Foot and Sterkfontein. PAST was founded in 1994 to remedy a shortfall in funding for fossil excavations being led by the late Phillip Tobias at Sterkfontein. In that same year, Ron Clarke discovered Little Foot’s first four foot bones of what would become after more than two decades of excavation, cleaning and reconstruction the oldest known pre-human fossil from southern Africa, and the most complete skeleton of an extinct hominid older than 1.5 million years ever found. Over this same period, PAST grew to become the largest, independent, African-based supporter of the continent’s origins sciences, funding research spanning the whole of the fossil record for the history of life and humankind across Africa. But throughout that time, PAST has remained the major funder of research at Sterkfontein, including Ron Clarke’s work on Little Foot.
For research at Sterkfontein and throughout Africa, PAST’s raises funds not only for the work of lead scientists, but also for the technicians and technical capacity that underpin their research, the African postgraduate students who train on their projects to become future leaders in the field, and the academic publications and conferences through which they disseminate research findings to the scientific community.
PAST also used Little Foot to exemplify to its U.K. audiences the tremendous value of the African origin sciences in addressing two of the major challenges facing societies everywhere: discrimination, particularly that based on race, and humanity’s decimation of earth’s natural environments and biodiversity. Little Foot underscores the shared African origins of people everywhere and the essential unity of humankind, thus providing a compelling argument for promoting social cohesion and rejecting racism. Looking further back in time, the fossil record also demonstrates the shared origins and interdependency of all living things, including humans. Yet, our activities today are causing species to go extinct at a rate faster than they have in the last 66 million years, when an asteroid impacted earth, causing a mass extinction that killed-off most dinosaurs and over 75% of other species. As biodiversity continues to decline today, we and other remaining species lose more of the essential ecosystem services upon which our survival and prosperity depend.
At PAST, we are committed to sharing as widely as possible the social value of our shared origins through a range of initiatives that include our award-winning Walking Tall learner education programme, our corporate diversity and sustainability workshops, and our award-winning All from One exhibition. The proven effectiveness of these programmes in promoting social cohesion and nature conservation ultimately can be traced back to PAST’s support for hundreds of discoveries such as Little Foot that collectively show we are #AllFromOne.