Although modern civilization has only been around for a couple thousand years, the existence of humankind and our predecessors extend back multiple millions of years. Although there are many gaps in our knowledge about the dawn of humanity, we have a relatively reliable idea of how we evolved and where we came from. The recent unveiling of a complete hominid skeleton dating back 3.67 million years is set to increase our understanding of the events that led up to humanity as we know it, and gives us a peek at what life was like before we were around.

Human Ancestor South Africa Little Foot
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

Discovery of Little Foot

South Africa’s “Cradle of Humanity,” a large piece of land made up of hills and plains outside of Johannesburg, was the site of many ancestral discoveries — including this most recent unveiling of the hominid nicknamed “Little Foot.” This monumental discovery only further solidifies the importance of the region’s significance as we research human evolution.

Little Foot is the oldest human ancestor skeleton ever found in southern Africa, according to the statement of a research scientist released on Wednesday. The skeleton gets its name from origins dating back around 20 years ago. In 1994, scientist Ron Clarke discovered small foot bones when he was going through fossils that were discovered in the Sterkfontein cave system. Even with just those few foot pieces, Clarke theorized that they belonged to an Australopithecus species — A smaller, human ancestor with ape characteristics that lived in this part of Africa millions of years ago.

More information came to light after Clarke discovered more bones in 1997 while going through a cupboard at the University of the Witwatersrand medical school. At that point, the rest of Little Foot was soon uncovered in a calcified ancient cave later that year.

Uncovering A Human Ancestor

While the discovery happened in 1997, the excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting and analysis would take 20 years. Much of the reason this took so long was the extreme caution taken to avoid damaging any sort of fossil. A lot of the work was done deep inside the cave, with scientists chipping away at concrete-like rock called breccia, taking great care to avoid breaking the priceless fossil remains. Discoverer Ron Clarke explained the details and significance of the excavation and unveiling in a recent statement.

“The process required extremely careful excavation in the dark environment of the cave. Once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton’s bones were exposed, the breccia in which the undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning in the lab…This is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of human origins research and it is a privilege to unveil a finding of this importance.”

While information of the fossil find has been around for years, this marks the first time that the complete remains will be revealed in the vault of the University of the Witwatersrand Evolutionary Studies Institute. This complete skeleton is yet another piece of the puzzle as we strive to unlock the secrets of human origins.