Researchers unveil 3.6 million-year-old rare skeleton of human ancestor

Researchers unveil 3.6 million-year-old rare skeleton of human ancestor

Named "Little Foot", the skeleton was found about 40 kilometres outside Johannesburg by miners, blasting rocks inside the Sterkfontein caves.

Discovered by Professor Ron Clarke from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, the fossil was given the nickname of "Little Foot" by Prof.

The oldest and most complete skeleton of human ancestors debuted Wednesday after a team of scientists spent 20 years excavating, cleaning and assembling the various bones that are now known as "Little Foot".

He described the discovery as being "one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of human origins research". Clarke sent his assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe into the deep underground cave to search for any possible broken bone surface that might fit with the bones he had discovered in boxes.

Within two days of searching in July 1997, they had found a match. Large blocks of the breccia, in which the skeleton was embedded, were painstakingly removed from the cave. Even with just those few foot pieces, Clarke theorized that they belonged to an Australopithecus species - A smaller, human ancestor with ape characteristics that lived in this part of Africa millions of years ago.

According to Dr. Clarke, the skeleton study should feed some twenty scientific articles in the coming years. The results of these studies are expected to be published in a series of scientific papers in high-impact, peer-reviewed worldwide journals in the near future.

It was embedded in a concrete-like rock called breccia, so excavating it from the cave was slow work.

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

Researchers say it has taken them 20 years to excavate, clean, reconstruct and analyse the delicate skeleton.

"What Little Foot shows us is that the image represented in our books of our ancestors walking on all fours and then rising gradually is totally false", he said.

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).

Remarkably human-like, the fossil is a hominin, a species which predates humans.

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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