Wits professor reveals story of Little Foot’s excavation at Sterkfontein

Posted by Gabrielle Jacobs on 2 January 2019 Tags:, , ,

Over a decade since its discovery, Professor Ronald Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand recounts how he and his team identified and excavated the most complete skeleton of Australopithecus prometheus or ‘Little Foot’ in the Sterkfontein Caves – one of the most important hominid discoveries ever made.

Ron Clarke is a professor at the Evolutionary Studies Institute based at the University of the Witwatersrand, and has been directing excavations and conducting research since 1991. His life’s work since then has largely focused on Little Foot. Little Foot is the only complete Australopithecus skeleton to be found in the world, and the oldest one to be discovered in Southern Africa dating back 3.67 million years.

With the help of his two assistants at the time, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe, Clarke discovered and excavated the remains of Little Foot’s skeleton between 1997 to 2012.

The excavated skeleton is believed to have belonged to a female hominid of about 30 years of age who had fallen into a deep cave and was then mummified due to dry conditions.

‘It’s going to tell us a lot about our early ancestry,’ says Clarke.

Since 2012, the professor and his team have spent six years working in a laboratory cleaning out fragments and reconstructing the remains of the skeleton of Little Foot.

The history of Little Foot’s discovery and excavation has been described for the first time by Clarke in an article called ‘Excavation, reconstruction and taphonomy of the StW 573 Australopithecus prometheus skeleton from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa’.

The article will feature in the 127th volume of the Journal of Human Evolution, which will be published in February 2019.

In the clip above, Professor Clarke describes Wits University’s relationship with the Paleontological Scientific Trust (PAST), an NGO that supports and funds the paleosciences at the institution.

Dr Robert Blumenschine, the chief scientist at PAST, credits Professor Ron Clarke as being ‘one of the world’s best excavators of hominid fossils’ and describes him as a highly skilled and patient researcher with extensive knowledge and a steady hand.

The Sterkfontein Caves, just 40 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

Featured image: Screenshot/YouTube

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