Ancient Hominid Fossil in South Africa

Ancient Hominid Fossil Dated to 3 Million Years

shareThis

After more than a decade of excavation work, the nearly complete skeleton of the Australopithecus fossil called Little Foot, so named for the diminutive size of the bones, has been convincingly dated to 3 million years old, making it the oldest nearly complete Australopithecus skeleton ever found.

In 1997 Ron Clarke, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe of the University of the Witwatersrand discovered an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton with skull embedded in hard, calcified sediment in an underground chamber of the Sterkfontein caves of Gauteng, South Africa. The caves have been world famous since 1936 for producing large numbers of fossils of the hominid Australopithecus, which some scientists claim is an extinct potential ancestor of humans.

The left hand and forearm of Little Foot

The left hand and forearm of Little Foot, partially embedded in matrix. Image: University of the Witwatersrand

Soon after the initial find, a magnetic study suggested the bones were 3.3 million years old. However, a 2006 study published in Science started an anthropological controversy when it suggested Little Foot’s bones were 2.2 million years old, based on the age of calcium-rich rocks surrounding the fossils. Two other later studies dated the skeleton to 2.35 and 2.58 million years ago, using a technique known as uranium-lead decay dating.

However, in a paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution, Professor Ron Clarke from the University of the Witwatersrand and his colleagues refute previous dating claims that suggested Little Foot is younger.

The team of South African and French scientists have stated that a partial collapse of the fossil-bearing stones into a lower cavity of the cave led to a confusing geological position and confounded the estimates of Little Foot’s age.  After the collapse, a calcium carbonate rock, known as flowstone, formed in the spaces around the fossils. This led to a mix-up millions of years later when scientists dated the younger rock and believed it had formed at nearly the same time as the fossils.

The dated flowstones filled voids formed by ancient erosion and collapse,” said a statement from the University of the Witwatersrand. “The skeleton is therefore older, probably considerably older, than the dated flowstones.

Barely a metre tall, Little Foot fell into a 20-metre hole and died, possibly while running from a predator. The body rolled down a steep slope and came to land with its left arm stretched out over its head.  Over the years, the remains, naturally mummified, were buried under more than 10 metres of sediment and rock.

According to the researchers, the finding bolsters the status of South Africa’s Sterkfontein cave complex as part of the “Cradle of Humankind”, a UN-recognised World Heritage Site.

Featured image: Little Foot found in the Sterkfontein caves of Gauteng, South Africa. Image: Laurent Bruxelles/INRAP

By April Holloway

Comments

Fascinating to see such patient and exacting efforts to get an accurate date for these very important fossils.

Two and a half million, 3.3 million....argue away. At least no one's screaming it can't be older than 6,000 years old. Yet.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Opinion

Mosaic depicting Alexander the Great fighting Darius III of Persia
Interpreted by many historians as proof of a vision for the unison of man, much of Alexander’s dealings in Persia have come to be attributed with a policy of racial fusion. Accordingly, echoed in...

Our Mission

Ancient Origins seeks to uncover, what we believe, is one of the most important pieces of knowledge we can acquire as human beings – our beginnings.

While many believe that we already hold such knowledge, our view is that there still exists a multitude of anomalies and mysteries in humanity's past that deserve further examination.

We therefore wish to foster an open community that is dedicated to investigating, understanding and explaining the origins of our species on planet earth. To this end, we aim to organize, support and even finance efforts in this direction.

Our aim is to move beyond theories and to present a thorough examination of current research and evidence and to offer alternative viewpoints and explanations to those currently held by mainstream science and archaeology.

Come with us on a journey to explore lost civilisations, sacred writings, ancient places, unexplained artefacts and scientific mysteries while we seek to reconstruct and retell the story of our beginnings.

Ancient Image Galleries

Vessel in the form of a man on a reed raft
Administrative tablet showing the early development of cuneiform writing
The Great Pyramids
Next article