WORLD / AFRICA
Painstaking study of 'Little Foot' fossil sheds light on human origins
Published: Mar 03, 2021 05:28 PM
Sophisticated scanning technology is revealing intriguing secrets about Little Foot, the remarkable fossil of an early human forerunner that inhabited South Africa 3.67 million years ago during a critical juncture in our evolutionary history.

A general view of South Africa Photo: VCG

A general view of South Africa Photo: VCG





Scientists said on Tuesday they examined key parts of the nearly complete and well-preserved fossil at Britain's national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source. The scanning focused upon Little Foot's cranial vault - the upper part of her braincase - and her lower jaw, or mandible. The researchers gained insight not only into the biology of Little Foot's species but also into the hardships that this individual, an adult female, encountered during her life.

Little Foot's species blended ape-like and human-like traits and is considered a possible direct ancestor of humans. University of the Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke, who unearthed the fossil in the 1990s in the Sterkfontein Caves northwest of Johannesburg and is a coauthor of the new study, has identified the species as Australopithecus prometheus.

"In the cranial vault, we could identify the vascular canals in the spongious bone that are probably involved in brain thermoregulation - how the brain cools down," said University of Cambridge paleoanthropologist Amélie Beaudet, who led the study published in the journal e-Life.

"This is very interesting as we did not have much information about that system," Beaudet added, noting that it likely played a key role in the threefold brain size increase from Australopithecus to modern humans.

Little Foot's teeth also were revealing.

"The dental tissues are really well preserved. She was relatively old since her teeth are quite worn," Beaudet said, though Little Foot's precise age has not yet been determined.

The researchers spotted defects in the tooth enamel indicative of two childhood bouts of physiological stress such as disease or malnutrition.

"There is still a lot to learn about early hominin biology," said study coauthor Thomas Connolley, principal beamline scientist at Diamond.
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