Little Foot: World’s oldest complete skeleton unveiled at Wits

After 20 years excavating the fossilised skeleton of one of our early human ancestor, Prof Ron Clarke’s work on Little Foot is almost done. (Freddy Mavunda)

After 20 years excavating the fossilised skeleton of one of our early human ancestor, Prof Ron Clarke’s work on Little Foot is almost done. (Freddy Mavunda)

The world’s oldest complete skeleton — Little Foot—was unveiled at the Wits University Evolutionary Studies Institute on Wednesday, after its discovery by an English Palaeontologist, Professor Ron Clarke, and his South African assistant, Stephen Motsumi, 20 years ago at the Sterkfontein Caves in Gauteng.

The 10m deep discovery of the female Australopithecus Promethius was unveiled by world renowned palaeontologist Professor Ron Clarke, who spent 20 years searching for the remains.

At 3.67 million years old, and with its entire skeleton now excavated from the cave, Little Foot is the oldest species of its kind to be found in Southern Africa and the oldest in the world.

The species belongs in the same zoological hominids group that includes Apes and Homo Sapiens. Little Foot walked upright with legs longer than her arms and hands that are almost identical to humans.

Her name was given by the late Wits Paleontology professor Phillip Tobias, who looked at the initial foot bones and said “oh what a small foot, we should call her Little Foot, hahahaha. It was a joke about Big Foot, the North American Sasquatch,” Clarke told the Mail & Guardian.

Little Foot’s teeth were worn out, an indication that she could have been around 30 years old when she died. She was about one and a half meters tall and her skeleton was found 10 meters underground, Clarke explained. 

The unveiling was described by Clarke as the culmination of his career, which began at age 16 when he read a book about Paleontology while still living in England.

“This is of course the culminating find of my career, in terms of the greatness of the specimen. But who knows, we may find even more complete skeletons in this cave,” Clarke said at the launch at the institute.

“This was a rare occurrence, normally we’re lucky if we find even part of a skeleton. The chances were remote. Normally when these animals died in the open, they were quickly consumed by scavengers,” he added.

Clarke believes that Little Foot may have fallen into the cave and died, thus explaining the lack of any other similar bones found in the cave.

Little Foot was unveiled in the institute which also houses Homo Naledi, unveiled by professor Lee Burger in 2015, and funded by the Paleontological Sciences Trust (Past).

“I call her a Queen,” Past chairperson Rick Menell said while referring to Little Foot.

“Because she is a mature woman and she’s potentially an ancestor of all of us. She is the most complete and spectacular skeleton ever discovered of that age, which gives her royal status in the scientific community - and we’re in a throne room, surrounded by fossils that are treasures of all humanity,” Menell added.

Officially, Little Foot belongs to all the people of South Africa. It will be kept at Wits University and the department of Science and Technology is its legal custodian.

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