Culmination of years of work by Wits prof since ’94 find
The University of Witwatersrand is now home to one of the world’s oldest and virtually most complete fossil of human ancestry‚ known as Little Foot. Little Foot was unveiled to the public for the very first time by Professor Ron Clarke, who had discovered the first four bones of her foot in 1994 in the Sterkfontein caves.
Three years later‚ he sent two other paleoscientists back to the cave in search of more bones. A day of searching led to the massive discovery of the buried bones.
“As has been said‚ she is the most complete Australopithecus skeleton ever discovered from anywhere‚” Clarke said.
For the last few years‚ he and his assistants‚ Andrew Phaswana and Abel Molepolle‚ have spent time carefully extracting the bones from the rocks they were embalmed in after decades underground.
Clarke said he refused to bow to the pressure of rushing the process and using big tools or blasting to extract the bones from the rocks as he wanted to ensure that he did not damage them.
Little Foot is believed to have been a female who was around 1.3m high and walked upright.
She had features similar to the human‚ having legs which were longer than the arms. This was contrary to the apes, which had arms that were longer than the legs‚ Clarke said.
The few missing pieces of her skeleton were believed to have possibly been taken as souvenirs by tourists who visited the caves prior to it being illegal to remove items from there. “[Others could have been] washed down to a lower level in the cave‚” Clarke said.
While the bones of hyenas and leopards were discovered in the caves that Little Foot was discovered in‚ to date she is the only human-like fossil to be found there.
Clarke said she had probably died after falling into the cave.
Other species similar to Little Foot might have died and been consumed by scavengers but her remains had been preserved because she was swallowed by the cave‚ he said.
Marking the occasion‚ Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib said paleoscience was fundamental to addressing race relations in current times.
“We can’t understand the political relevance today and the notion of common humanity without coming to terms with the scientific foundation of where that basis lies.
“Clarke and many of his colleagues effectively establish the scientific foundations for when we say that we are a common humanity‚” Habib said.