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One Little Foot for SA, one big step in understanding our humanity

07 December 2017

South Africa's "Cradle of Humanity", a large piece of land made up of hills and plains outside of Johannesburg, was the site of many ancestral discoveries - including this most recent unveiling of the hominid nicknamed "Little Foot".

The Little Foot fossil is 3.67 million years old, making it South Africa's oldest virtually complete fossil of a human ancestor.

Clarke says Little Foot belongs to a second human-related species, Australopithecus prometheus, which was named from fragmentary fossils in 1948.

The fossil skeleton takes its name from the small foot bones discovered by scientist Ron Clarke in 1994 when he was sorting through bones in boxes from the Sterkfontein cave system.

While the discovery happened in 1997, the excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting and analysis would take 20 years.

And it is hoped it will provide a better understanding of our ancestors' appearance and movement.

Little Foot is remarkable because it is virtually complete: most fossil finds are just fragments of skeletons, but it is missing only parts of its feet, pelvis and kneecaps.

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In the 20 years since the discovery, they have been hard at work to excavate and prepare the fossil.

Professor Ron Clarke's assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe were then sent to the Sterkfontein Caves to search for any broken bone surface which might fit with the bones he had discovered initially. This monumental discovery only further solidifies the importance of the region's significance as we research human evolution. It has been an extraordinarily long process because the skeleton was encased in concrete-like breccia.

"The process required extremely careful excavation in the dark environment of the cave", said Clarke.

Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the university, said:"This is a landmark achievement for the global scientific community and South Africa's heritage".

The discovery is a source of pride for Africans, said Robert Blumenschine, chief scientist with the organization that funded the excavation, the Paleontological Scientific Trust (PAST).

Little Foot is by far a complete skeleton of human ancestor. "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.

Clarke and a team of worldwide experts will soon reveal results from the decades of studies in a series of scientific papers.

One Little Foot for SA, one big step in understanding our humanity