Little Foot skeleton revealed

Littlefoot

The skeleton - which has been nicknamed "Little Foot" by its discoverer, Professor Ron Clarke of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa - is thought to be a whopping 3.6 million years old.

After 20 years of careful excavation, paleontologists are finally ready to present the world's most complete Australopithecus fossil found to date.

For years, information has trickled out on the significance of the find, but this is the first time the fossil skeleton will be unveiled in the vault of the University of the Witwatersrand Evolutionary Studies Institute.

"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", said Clarke.

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

Little Foot was alive some 500,000 years before the continent's most famous Australopithecus hominid, Lucy, who was found in Ethiopia.

Professor Ron Clarke and his assistants found the fossils and spent years to excavate, clean, analyze and reconstruct the skeleton. Two days later, they did just that. The results of these studies are expected to be published in a series of scientific papers in high impact, peer reviewed global journals in the near future.

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The researchers hail the skeleton project as important for South Africa's heritage and "our common humanity".

The landmark discovery reinforces the belief that South Africa was a major cradle of humankind.

Its discovery is expected to help understand the appearance, full skeletal anatomy, limb lengths and locomotor abilities of one of the species of our early ancestral relatives.

It took the researchers 20 years to excavate and reconstruct the skeleton, which was found in a cave outside of Johannesburg. "It was like excavating a fluffy pastry out of concrete", Clarke said Wednesday in a BBC report. "Once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton's bones were exposed, the breccia in which the undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning in the lab", said Clarke.

Radio 702's Azania Mosaka spoke to Professor Robert Blumenschine, the chief scientist at the Palaeontological Scientific Trust, about Little Foot.

With two decades worth of study on the fossils, the team led by Clarke is preparing a series of scientific papers to reveal all the details.

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