11 December 2006
A cast of the world’s most complete pre-human fossil, one of the most significant fossil finds ever made, can now be seen by the public.
An in situ cast of Little Foot, which rests in dolomite and chert stones in the Silberberg Grotto at Sterkfontein Caves, has been unveiled at the Maropeng visitor interpretation centre at South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind world heritage site.
Dubbed Little Foot because its body parts are smaller than other adult finds, the fossil is the most complete pre-human (Australopithecine) fossil unearthed to date, and probably the oldest in southern Africa.
More than 10 years since the excavation of Little Foot began, the cast allows visitors to Maropeng to see what Little Foot looks at the site of the excavation at the Sterkfontein Caves.
Little Foot will lie unlifted at Sterkfontein until around the middle of 2007. When completely excavated, it is expected to reveal crucial information on how the Australopithecines looked, moved and lived.
Speaking at the unveiling of the cast last week, Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa described Little Foot as “one of South Africa’s most highly prized palaeoanthropological discoveries.
“Although we know that Little Foot walked upright and was closely related to the world-famous Mrs Ples, it is an even more ancient and more complete Australopithecine fossil find,” Shilowa said.
“The excavation has yielded the most complete Australopithecine skull as well as the most complete set of foot and leg bones. Furthermore, the skeleton is extremely well preserved, with most of the bones intact and joined in their natural position.
“All of these qualities make it one of the most significant hominid discoveries on the planet, and one that every South African should be proud of.”
Old boxes of bones
Little Foot was discovered after Professor Ron Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand, looking through boxes of animal fossils in 1994, recognized bones belonging to a hominid foot.
Over time he accumulated many of the bones from this hominid’s left and right feet, and – thinking it unlikely that two feet of the same specimen should have fallen into the cave, unless they had still been attached to a whole body – reasoned that the rest of the skeleton must still be encased in the Sterkfontein Caves.
In 1997 Clarke made a cast of the broken tibia bone which he thought should match the point in the cave from which the foot-bones had been removed, and sent his two assistants, Nkwane Molefe and Steven Motsumi, into the Silberberg Grotto.
Within two days Molefe and Motsumi found a fragment which astonishingly matched the tibia shaft, and so the complete skeleton of Little Foot was discovered.
Also speaking at the Little Foot cast unveiling, Wits University vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa said that Little Foot’s excavation from its 3-million-year-old encasing “gives us a unique opportunity to uncover information about the appearance, locomotion and lifestyle of the Australopithecines and to unlock important secrets about human evolution.”
Cradle of Humankind
Sterkfontein Cave is the most famous of 13 excavated fossil sites in the broader 47 000-hectare Cradle of Humankind site situated some 50 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg.
Three million years of human activity have taken place in and around the Cradle, including man’s earliest-known mastery of fire.
Forty percent of all human ancestor fossil finds have been made here, including several of the world’s most famous and important fossils – among them Mrs Ples (now believed to be Master Ples), dating back 2.5-million years, and Little Foot.
A further 500 hominid fossils and over 9 000 stone tools have been excavated in the area, and excavations will probably continue for another 100 years.