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Little Foot, the Most Complete Australopithecus Fossil, Goes on Display

After 20 years of excavation and cleaning, the 3.67-million year old hominin is ready for her closeup

(University of the Witwatersrand)
smithsonian.com

Little Foot is one of the best-known skeletons in paleontology. Since the discovery of the bones of the young hominin between 1994 and 1997 researchers have dated the remains, examined the bones and published many papers on what is considered one of the most complete skeletons of a human ancestor ever found. Now, reports the BBC, after 20 years of excavation and painstaking cleaning, the remains have gone on public display for the first time in South Africa.

The journey out of the dustbin of history has been long and painstaking for Little Foot. David McKenzie at CNN reports that in 1994, paleontologist Ron Clarke was looking through a box of fossils from the Sterkfontein cave system in South Africa that had been blasted out by lime miners. He found four tiny fragments of ankle bones he believed came from an early human ancestor. In 1997, he found more bones from the skeleton at a nearby medical school and decided to look for more of Little Foot in the cave itself.

With his assistants, he found remains embedded in a concrete-like material called breccia. They cut Little Foot out of the breccia in blocks, then began the process of removing the tiny fragile fragments from the stone. It took until 2012 to locate and remove all traces of Little Foot from the cave. Then even more difficult work began. “We used very small tools, like needles to excavate it. That’s why it took so long,” Clarke tells the BBC. “It was like excavating a fluffy pastry out of concrete.”

The results, however, are amazing. While Lucy, the most-famous early hominin skeleton found in Ethiopia in the 1970s is about 40 percent complete, Little Foot is 90 percent complete and still has her head, reports Elaina Zachos at National Geographic. She is believed to be a different species of Australopithecus​ than Lucy and may be older. Lucy is believed to be about 3.2 million years old while Clarke and his team have dated Little Foot to 3.67 million years, though that date is controversial.

Zachos reports that Little Foot made her debut at the Hominin Vault at the University of the Witwatersrand's Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg on Wednesday. Next year, McKenzie reports the team examining Little Foot expects to release an estimated 25 scientific papers about the fossil, sure to stir up the ongoing debate on whether  South Africa, not East Africa, is where much of early human evolution took place.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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