Thirteen years after the excavation of the fossil called Little Foot began, an international team of scientists have now determined the probable age of Australopithecus fossil.

The team of scientists from France and South Africa have determined that Little Foot is approximately 3 million years old. The researchers who worked on estimating the age of the fossil published their findings in the Journal of Human Evolution.

"Since its discovery in 1997 in Silberberg Grotto, a skeleton known as Little Foot has been meticulously excavated," said the study's authors in a press release. "Found under exceptional circumstances, this Australopithecine, which is the most complete ever identified, contributes unique elements to our knowledge of human origins."

Ron Clarke, a professor from the University of the Witwatersrand, worked with his team to overturn previous dating estimates that said the fossil was a lot younger than the current estimate of 3 million years.

Little Foot was found in a cave system called Sterkfontein located in Gauteng, South Africa. The cave system yielded numerous Australopithecus fossils over the past 70 years. A team of scientists that included Clarke and two other scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand named Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi found a remarkably complete example of an Australopithecus skeleton in an underground chamber in the Skerfontein caves. Since the fossilized remains were encased in a tough, calcified sediment, it took the better part of 13 years to excavate the specimen.

The team has reconstructed a part of Little Foot's story with evidence gathered from the fossilized remains.

"Many isolated animal and Australopithecine bones are preserved in the Sterkfontein caves and neighboring ones. Some have tooth marks on their surfaces that were made by large carnivores including leopards and saber-toothed cats," the authors said. "In a landscape dotted with sinkholes, leopards often consumed their prey out of danger on a tree branch above one of these holes. The partially eaten remnants of these meals fell into the holes, accumulating in the caves over time. Other fossils were accumulated in the caves as they washed into the shafts, prey of other carnivores or natural deaths."

Unlike most of the other Australopithecus remains found in the area, Little Foot's remains indicate a different story.

"The history of Little Foot is very different. Perhaps while being pursued by a predator, this individual fell more than twenty meters into a hole and died," said the authors. "The body then rolled down a scree slope where it landed with one arm stretched over the head and the other at its side. Through time, the body was buried under more than ten meters of sediments and rocks."

Currently available dating methods are far more accurate than what was available to scientists over a decade ago. Little Foot lived during a time period over a million years before true humans appeared. However, the discovery may bring to light new facts about the Australopithecus living in Africa during the time before mankind appeared.

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