Answers lie in SA’s solid rock

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fossil find

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The Skull is from a Melapa Hominid 1, a male aged between 10 and 13, from the Australopithecus Sediba species. The Skull is on display at The Iziko Museum in Cape Town - Photo: Matthew Jordaan

The discovery of fossilised bones from a 2-million-year-old hominid species that could be a direct ancestor of modern humans made international headlines when it was announced at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in Gauteng two years ago.

On Friday, another major announcement has revealed the discovery of yet more bones believed to be a part of that same partial skeleton discovered at the Malapa cave site in the Cradle of Humankind in 2009 that is a new species of hominid, Australopithecus sediba.

It has been widely, though not universally, hailed as a bona fide transitional species between early ape-like people and modern humans, showing a mosaic of characteristics shared by earlier species of apemen like Australopithecus africanus and more recent ancestors of humans such as Homo erectus.

The new bones – including parts of a jaw, a complete femur (thigh bone), ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements – will create a completeness never before seen in the human fossil record, said Professor Lee Berger, a palaeoanthropologist at Wits University and leader of the Institute for Human Evolution’s research team investigating A. sediba.

“This discovery will almost certainly make Karabo (the name given to the skeleton) the most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered,” said Berger, who made today’s announcement from Shanghai, where he is visiting as part of a SA delegation.

And another world first is that ordinary people will be able to watch in real time as scientists from Berger’s Institute for Human Evolution investigate the find and prepare the specimens – both on site at the Cradle of Humankind and through live internet streaming.

It will, however, be a very slow process, because the “new” bones are encased in a solid rock.

It’s all something of a Berger family affair.

The bones of Karabo, probably a boy aged between about nine and 13, and another partial skeleton were discovered by Berger’s then nine-year-old son Matthew.

He was on a fossil hunt with his father at the newly discovered subterranean cave site.

On Friday, Berger was scheduled to announce the discovery of a large rock containing significant parts of a skeleton believed to be more of the the remains of Karabo (a name meaning “answer” in Sotho languages).

The rock, about a metre in diameter, was found almost three years ago, but lay unexplored in the Wits laboratories until early last month.

Then, Berger and his wife, Jackie Smilg, a radiologist who is doing her PhD research on the CT (computed tomography medical imaging) scanning of fossil material embedded in rock, scanned this particular rock in a state-of-the-art CT scanner and discovered the bones.

“We are obviously quite excited as it appears that we now have some of the most critical and complete remains of the skeleton, albeit encased in solid rock.

“It’s a big day for us as a team and for our field as a whole,” Berger said in a statement released by Wits.

Now, “in an unprecedented gesture of open access to science and public participation”, the process of exploring and preparing these fossil remains will be conducted in a laboratory studio, which was designed in collaboration with the National Geographic Society and will be built at the Maropeng Visitor Centre in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site.

Visitors will be able to watch directly while the work will also be streamed on the internet.

“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,” Berger said.

“It’s breathtaking to actually ‘see the future’ using technology. It unlocks the potential for us to make ambitious plans to share this find with other scientists and with the public.

“Such an endeavour is quite literally changing the way we conduct science, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to share this magnificent discovery with the world.

“But, truthfully, my colleagues and I just can’t wait to get our hands on the fossils in that rock!” - Cape Argus

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