Little Foot skeleton revealed

Paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke during the unveiling of the fossil of the 3.5-million-year-old woman who had been buried deep in the caves of Sterkfontein

At 90%, Little Foot is today the most complete skeleton of a humanoid more than a million and half years old available to researchers.

The fossil dates back about 3.6 million years.

For years, information has trickled out on the significance of the find, but this is the first time the fossil skeleton will be unveiled in the vault of the University of the Witwatersrand Evolutionary Studies Institute.

Clarke, who began his paleoanthropology career in Kenya in 1963, said Little Foot was by far the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor, older than 1.5 million years, ever found.

Little Foot was discovered in small pieces from 1994 by the British paleontologist Ron Clarke in a cave of Sterkfontein, near Johannesburg.

Little Foot is remarkable because it is virtually complete: most fossil finds are just fragments of skeletons, but it is missing only parts of its feet, pelvis and kneecaps. Within two days of searching, they found such a contact, in July 1997.

They were among other fossils removed from rock blasted from the caves years earlier by miners.

Professor Clarke said: "Once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton's bones were exposed, the breccia in which their undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning in the lab".

According to Dr. Clarke, the skeleton study should feed some twenty scientific articles in the coming years.

Much of the recovery work was done deep inside the cave system, working away at concrete-like rock called breccia, using air scribes to avoid breaking the fragile and priceless fossil remains.

The results of the decades of studies will soon be released in a series of more than 25 scientific papers, the scientists involved say.

After years of painstaking excavation and preparation, "the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor" has been revealed to the world.

The university is proud of the assembly, saying it's a chance for scientists to better understand evolution.

The discovery is a source of pride for Africans, said Robert Blumenschine, chief scientist with the organization that funded the excavation, the Paleontological Scientific Trust (PAST).

"Our ancestors were standing up when they lived in the trees and when they came down they were standing up", said Ron Clarke, "Little Foot never went through the monkey stage, with long arms and long hands ".

The scientific value of the find and much more will be unveiled in a series of papers that Prof Clarke and a team of worldwide experts have been preparing, with many expected in the next year.

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