Stare into the eyes of Mrs Ples

Like the Mona Lisa, she has a strange allure; the almost sad eyes looking at you across 2,15-million years.

A lifelike bust, reconstructed from the most complete skull yet discovered of an Australopithecus africanus, a direct ancestor of modern humans, shows what one of South Africa’s most famous fossils, Mrs Ples, probably looked like.

The bust, reconstructed by French artist Elisabeth Daynes, goes on display for the first time at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria from Friday. It is part of a display celebrating the 60th anniversary of the discovery of Mrs Ples in 1947 at Sterkfontein by Dr Robert Broom.

The original skull of Mrs Ples, which is normally locked up in a vault, will also be on display together with several other famous fossils from the site — including a partial skeleton of a hominid, now believed to be the remains of Mrs Ples, and a replica of Little Foot, a complete skeleton still to be excavated at the site.

While the bust might have the public going to the museum, scientists would be more excited about the reconstruction of the virtual brain of Mrs Ples that has been reconstructed from computed tomography scans of the skull.

Using powerful computers in France, Dr Francis Thackeray, director of the Transvaal Museum, and Professor Jose Braga, of the Paul Sabaties University in Toulouse, France, compiled a three-dimensional reconstruction of Mrs Ples’s ”brain”.

The reconstruction shows that the left side of the brain is slightly larger than the right side, meaning Mrs Ples was probably right-handed. It also shows that the Broca’s area of the brain — involved in language processing and speech production — was slightly developed, meaning Mrs Ples could partly talk.

The virtual brain is also displayed on monitors at the Transvaal Museum exhibition.

Mrs Ples, which according to recent research might actually be an adolescent boy, is 2,15-million years old.

While Mrs Ples is no oil painting, Makgolo Makgolo, chief executive of the Northern Flagship Institute, which operates the Transvaal Museum among others, wants the original to go on display permanently.

”Mrs Ples should be an icon for admiration, just as the Mona Lisa in Paris is admired by thousands upon thousands of visitors who throng to see the original at the Louvre, not its replica,” he said.

The display at the Transvaal Museum will only last three months, and a special high-security display case had to be built especially for it. There are also extra security personnel.

The permanent display of national heritage treasures, such as Mrs Ples, will, however, require the upgrading of museums where they are kept to ensure accessibility and maximum security.

”It is imperative for government and business to put more money into upgrading museums such as the Transvaal Museum,” Makgolo said. This would enable museums to renew their displays and put original pieces on display, luring more people to museums.

”We have been showing people the same thing for 30 years. It needs some revamping. If we want people to queue outside the museum, we must show them the originals,” he said.

In the meantime, Thackeray is hoping the current three-month display of Mrs Ples will be seen by enough children to get them interested in palaeontology — as happened to him during a visit in his young days to the Transvaal Museum. — Sapa

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