PAST and Wits introduce Little Foot, SA’s oldest fossil ancestor

PAST and Wits introduce Little Foot, SA’s oldest fossil ancestor

December 2017

South Africa’s status as a major cradle in the African nursery of humankind has been reinforced with today’s unveiling of “Little Foot”, the country’s oldest virtually complete fossil human ancestor.

Little Foot is by far the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor (Australopithecus) older than 1.5 million years ever found. It’s also the oldest fossil hominid in southern Africa, dating back 3.67 million years. The unveiling will be the first time that the completely cleaned and reconstructed skeleton can be viewed by the media, both national and international.

Described as one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of human origins research by Professor Ron Clarke from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who also discovered the fossil, Little Foot was given its nickname based on the Professor’s initial discovery of four small foot bones.

After lying undiscovered for more than 3.6 million years deep within the Gauteng Province’s 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. Subsequently, the professor sent his assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe into the cave to search for broken bone surface that might fit with the bones he had discovered. Within two days in July 1997, they found such a contact.

Soon after the discovery, Clarke realised they were on to something highly significant and started the specialised process of excavating the skeleton in the cave up through 2012. 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 it was fossilised, so, according to the Professor, the process required extremely careful excavation: once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton’s fragile bones were exposed, the breccia (a concrete-like rock) in which their undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning at a Sterkfontein lab.

The 20-year long period of excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting, and analysis of the skeleton required a steady source of funding, which was provided by the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), a Johannesburg-based NGO 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.

Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits, labelled Little Foot’s discovery as a landmark achievement for the global scientific community and South Africa’s heritage, while PAST’s chief scientist, Professor Robert Blumenschine, called it a source of pride for all Africans. “Not only is Africa the storehouse of the ancient fossil heritage for people the world over, it was also the wellspring of everything that makes us human, including our technological prowess, our artistic ability, and our supreme intellect,” he says.

The scientific value of the find and much more will be unveiled in a series of papers that Professor Clarke and a team of international experts have been preparing, many expected in the next year.