‘Karabo’ skeleton replica on exhibit in Cape Town

23 May 2014

The Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town has become the first museum in Africa to exhibit a standing replica of the two-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba – dubbed “Karabo” – one of the most complete skeletons of an early human relative that has ever been found.

One of South Africa’s most important palaeoanthropological finds, the original skeleton of Australopithecus sediba – dubbed “Karabo” – was discovered at the Malapa site in the Cradle of Humankind north-west of Johannesburg in 2008 by professors Lee Berger and Paul Dirks.

Berger is a palaeoanthropologist at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University, and Dirks is a geologist based at the James Cooke University in Australia. Berger led the team of scientists from across the globe on the excavation.

The two-million-year-old Australopithecus sebida is thought to be a good candidate for the transitional species between the southern African ape-man Australopithecus africanus (examples include the Taung Child and Mrs Ples) and either Homo habilis or even a direct ancestor of Homo erectus (Turkana Boy, Java Man or Peking Man). The australopithecines are believed to be the ancestors of the Homo genus.

There is no doubt, Berger said recently, that Australopithecus sebida is a new species, but not in the Homo genus. “There is broad acceptance of the species Australopithecus sediba among scientists as something previously unknown to science. Very little debate has occurred around whether these bones represent a new species. The debate has centred, largely, [on] whether the species should be placed in the genus Homo.”

The new species has long arms, like an ape, and short powerful hands, making it likely that it could have retained its ability to climb. A very advanced pelvis and long legs suggest that it was capable of striding and possibly running like a human. It is estimated that it was about 1.27 metres tall and weighed about 33 kilograms.

Berger, on behalf of the Evolutionary Studies Institute, in partnership with the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site Management Authority, handed over a replica of a reconstructed, upright Karabo to the Iziko South African Museum last week.

“As Iziko Museums of South Africa has been such a wonderful supporter of palaeoanthropological discoveries, it was agreed by the stakeholders that it should be the first museum in Africa to display a standing replica of Karabo,” Berger said last week. “It will become part of the exhibition titled ‘The search for our early ancestors’, currently on show at the museum.”

This standing replica is one of a number of casts available through the Marapo Stones and Bones project, a community-based and driven fossil casting facility at the Cradle World Heritage site that is the result of a partnership between the institute at Wits and the Cradle site.

As part of this partnership, an arrangement has been made to allow for the donation of casts of fossils from the Cradle site to partners around the world, including public institutions and universities such as Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and to museums including the Natural History Museum (Museum fur Naturkunde) in Germany and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

The production of casts forms an important part of the goal of developing the economy and people in the Cradle of Humankind and other heritage-rich areas of South Africa, as well as developing the science of palaeoanthropology in Africa, and the continued promotion of the Cradle area as one of the world’s foremost fossil hominid-bearing sites.

The sites of Malapa and the newly excavated Rising Star site, together with the world famous Sterkfontein Caves, have yielded the richest early human ancestor sites on the planet. Work on Australopithecus sediba alone has been featured in a large number of prestigious scientific works as well as the popular media, including National Geographic, Scientific American and Time Magazine.

The Malapa site still holds precious fossil material, and excavations are likely to continue at the site for decades to come.

SAinfo reporter and Wits University