South African scientists claim to have uncovered the most complete skeleton yet of an ancient relative of man, hidden in a rock excavated from an archaeological site three years ago.
The remains of a juvenile hominid skeleton, of the newly identified Australopithecus (southern ape) sediba species, are the “most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered”, University of Witwatersrand palaeontologist Lee Berger said.
The skeleton is thought to be about 2 million years old.
The upright-walking tree climber would have been aged between nine and 13 years when he or she died.
“We have discovered parts of a jaw and critical aspects of the body including what appear to be a complete femur [thigh bone], ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements, some never before seen in such completeness in the human fossil record,” said Professor Berger, a lead professor in the finding.
The latest discovery was made in a one-metre-wide rock that lay unnoticed for years in a laboratory until a technician saw a tooth sticking out of the black stone last month.
It was then scanned to reveal significant parts of A.sediba, whose other parts were discovered in 2009 in the world-famous Cradle of Humankind north of Johannesburg.
It is not certain whether the species, which had long arms, a small brain and a thumb, was a direct ancestor of humans’ genus, Homo, or simply a close relative.
“It appears that we now have some of the most critical and complete remains of the skeleton,” Professor Berger said.
Other team members were equally enthusiastic.
“It’s like putting together the pieces of a puzzle,” university laboratory manager Bonita de Klerk said.
“It was in packing this [stone] up in the vehicle to go and be scanned that one of our technicians actually noticed a tooth sticking out on the surface and he called Lee over and said, ‘Oh, I think this is a hominid tooth’, and he was right.”
The Cradle of Humankind, now a World Heritage Site, is the oldest continuous palaeontological dig in the world.
Remains of four A. sediba skeletons have been discovered in South Africa’s Malapa cave, 50 kilometres north of Johannesburg, since 2008. The individuals are believed to have fallen into a pit in the cave and died.
The university also announced it would open up the process of exploring and uncovering fossil remains to the public and stream it online in real time.
A special laboratory studio will be built at the Cradle of Humankind.
“The public will be able to participate fully in live science and future discoveries as they occur in real time – an unprecedented moment in palaeoanthropology,” Professor Berger said.
The lab and the virtual infrastructure are expected to be built within a year, Qedani Mahlangu, a regional minister of economic development, said.
The university is in talks with Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in China, Britain’s Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian in the United States to set up virtual outposts for the live science project.