A short, hairy “ape man” who tumbled into a pit in South Africa millions of years ago is back in the running as a candidate ancestor for humans, scientists said on Friday last week.
Researchers said a painstaking 13-year probe has “convincingly shown” that the strange-looking creature known as “Little Foot” lived about 3 million years ago — almost a million years earlier than calculated by rival teams.
If so, it would make Little Foot — so named for the diminutive size of the bones — one of the oldest members of the Australopithecus hominid family ever found.
It would also bolster the status of South Africa’s Sterkfontein cave complex as part of the “Cradle of Humankind,” a UN-recognized World Heritage Site.
“Some have said South Africa is too young” to have given rise to modern man, said Laurent Bruxelles from France’s National Institute for Archaeological Research, who took part in the study.
“We are putting Little Foot and South Africa back in the running,” he added.
Another challenger for the title of human ancestor was “Lucy,” a specimen of a different strand of Australopithecus — the genus that had both ape and human features, walked upright and is believed to have given rise to Homo sapiens, or anatomically modern humans, via Homo habilis.
Lucy’s skeleton, uncovered in Ethiopia in 1974, has been dated to about 3 million years, although as always in fossils, there is a margin of uncertainty.
“No longer are the Australopithecus of East Africa, like Lucy, the sole candidates” to have been our ancestors, Bruxelles said.
Little Foot’s age has been a controversial topic.
The Sterkfontein caves, northwest of Johannesburg, do not contain volcanic sediment, as do the east African fossil sites, which is easier to date.
This has caused estimates of Little Foot’s age to fluctuate quite drastically — anything from 1.5 million to 4 million years, though the most extreme estimates have long been ruled out.
Little Foot’s skeleton is the most complete of an Australopithecus ever found.
In 2006, a paper in the journal Science estimated its age at 2.2 million years, based on chemical dating of the layers of stone around the fossil.
Now Bruxelles and a team of French and South African scientists said calcite deposits dubbed “flowstones” that enveloped Little Foot were much younger than the fossil itself.
“The dated flowstones filled voids formed by ancient erosion and collapse,” according to a statement from the University of the Witwatersrand.
“The skeleton is therefore older, probably considerably older, than the dated flowstones,” it said.
Barely 1m tall, Little Foot fell into a 20m hole and died, possibly while running from a predator.
The body rolled down a steep slope and came to land with its left arm stretched out over its head.
Over the years, the naturally mummified remains were buried under more than 10m of sediment and rock, until they were uncovered in 1997.
The discovery of Little Foot was met with great excitement — estimated at first to be about 3.3 million years old, it would have been a contemporary of Lucy.
However, the later, younger, dating threatened Little Foot’s place in the human evolutionary picture.
“There is a lot at stake here,” Bruxelles said. “Homo habilis appeared about 2.5 million years ago, which means that Little Foot could not have been our ancestor if it lived later than that.”