Sterkfontein, South Africa, DEC 10: Scientists started to gather pieces together the evolution of 3.67-million-year-old early human who may have been among the first to walk like us.
After the labyrinthine 20 year-long excavation, a peculiar ancient skeleton started to tell the secrets about Human Evolution.
"Little Foot" is the nickname given to a nearly complete Australopithecus fossil skeleton found in 1994–1998 in the cave system of Sterkfontein, South Africa. It is the fossil of female who showed some earliest signs of human like bipedal walking around 3.67 million year ago. She may belong to distinct species that must researchers haven’t recognized yet. The recovery of the bones proved extremely difficult and tedious, because they are completely embedded in concrete-like rock.
“It is almost miracle to come out intact”, said robin Crompton, a musculoskeletal biologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, who was collaborated with research team to excavation.
Little foot comes from the small size of the foot bones that were among the first parts of the skeleton to be discovered.
The first signs that there was an invaluable hominin specimen up for grabs came in 1994. Ronald Clarke, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) in Johannesburg, South Africa, was rifling through boxes of fossils at a field laboratory at the Sterkfontein caves, about 40 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg.
He realized that a handful of small bones in the collection belonged to an early hominin.
He established that the bones were those of a species of Australopithecus — ape-like hominins that were present in Africa between about 4 million and 2 million years ago, before the human genus homo rose to dominance.
Clarke and his colleagues then found many more bones embedded in a matrix of solid rock deep in the Sterkfontein caves. They began carefully excavating Little Foot, piece by fragile piece, using hammers and chisels, followed by precision tools. The entire process took them almost 20 years.
By late last year, Clarke’s team had successfully removed enough bones to reconstruct more than 90% of the skeleton, no other Australopithecus fossil comes close to that level of completeness. For comparison, the most famous Australopithecus— Lucy — is around 40% complete.
On 29 November, Clarke’s team, posted two papers on Little Foot to the bioRxiv preprint server — one on the age of the specimen, the other on the limbs and locomotion. On 4 December, the researchers posted a third, on the skull and on the potential relationship to a known hominin species. The team posted a fourth paper, this time focusing on the arms and an injury Little Foot received during her life, on 5 December.
Further papers, on the hand, teeth and inner ear, are expected in the near future, says Crompton. Most will ultimately appear in a special edition of the Journal of Human Evolution.