Little Foot: South Africa Unveils 3.6 Million-Year-Old Skeleton Of Young Girl

By Samriddhi Dastidar | Dec 07, 2017 07:50 AM EST
A 3.6 million-year-old skeleton of an early human ancestor was unveiled in South Africa. The fossil belonged to Little Foot, a young female. (Photo : Mario Modesto Mata | Wikimedia Commons )

Paleontologists in South Africa have unveiled one of the absolutely complete skeletons of a human ancestor, which dates back 3.6 million years.

The nearly complete fossil of the Australopithecus was displayed by the University of the Witwatersrand. The skeleton, named Little Foot, was found 25 miles northwest of Johannesburg in the Sterkfontein caves. Rocks blasted by miners here had revealed the bones of Little Foot.

It took researcher Ron Clarke, from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute and his assistants, 20 years for excavating, cleaning, reconstructing, and analyzing the fragile skeleton.

"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 today," Clarke said.

Little Foot - The Early Australopithecus Ancestor

Although the honor of the oldest hominid skeleton ever found goes to a hominin named Ardi, which lived in Ethiopia 4.4 million years ago, the discovery of Little Foot is important because its skeleton is more whole than Ardi’s. The nearly complete skeleton is expected to help paleontologists know more about the appearance and movement of Australopithecus, the early human ancestors.

Little Foot is relatively small, with a height of about 4 feet 4 inches. The face, teeth, and pelvic structure of the fossil indicate that Little Foot is a young girl.

The isotope analysis of Little Foot’s fossilized tooth enamel may also throw light on the environment she lived in and the food she consumed. The paleontologists believe that Little Foot died after falling down a shaft and into the caves below.

Little Foot is also the first skeleton that will enable the research team to compare between the leg length and arm length in a single individual. Her legs were longer than her arms, suggesting she was much more like humans than apes and walked upright and could have lived in trees.

The location of the skeleton indicates that hominins flourished further across Africa than researchers had previously believed.

A Source Of Pride For Africa

Robert Blumenschine, who is the chief scientist at the Paleontological Scientific Trust that funded the excavation, said the discovery is a source of pride for Africans.

Blumenschine added that the discovery indicated that Africa is more than the storehouse of the ancient fossil heritage for people the world over. The continent is also the wellspring of everything that makes human qualities, including supreme intellect, artistic ability, and technological prowess.

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