Johannesburg - It took 20 years of careful, painstaking excavation to bring Little Foot out of a cave, but now that she is snug in a vault, the hard work is about to begin.
On Wednesday, the 3.67 million-year-old hominid called Little Foot was unveiled to the public for the first time at Wits University’s Hominin Vault.
This vault will now be Little Foot’s new home, which she will share with thousands of other hominid fossils collected across South Africa.
It is here that a team of scientists from across the globe will begin scrutinising the skeleton with an arsenal of modern instruments and techniques they hope will open up Little Foot’s world to humankind.
What makes Little Foot important to the world of palaeoanthropology is that about 97% of the skeleton has been recovered, making it the most complete early hominid skeleton in the world.
“What we have now is a template to work from. If you have a finger bone, you know that his finger bone is associated with this skeleton,” explains Dr Dominic Stratford, who is a part of the team researching Little Foot.
In the next few months the plan is to publish a series of journal articles describing Little Foot.
"Little Foot", the Australopithecus fossil, is displayed at the University of the Witwatersrand. Picture: Themba Hadebe/AP
Life-like casts have been made of the skeleton, which scientists around the world are going to use to study Little Foot's bones remotely.
Little Foot’s teeth will also be put under close scrutiny. Microscopic pitting and scratches on the tooth enamel could in the future help scientists work out what the hominid ate.
“Every one of these elements, tells us a story,” says Stratford.
The journey to the Hominin Vault began over 20 years ago when Wits Professor Ron Clarke discovered foot and leg bone fragments in a box that contained material that had been blasted from the Silberberg Grotto chamber in the Sterkfontein caves.
Realising the rest of the bones might still be in the chamber, Clarke instructed his assistants, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe, to head down the cave and see if they could find them.
After two days of searching they matched one of the bones in the box to a fossil in the chamber. Then began the hard job of removing the bones from the hard breccia (sedimentary rock).
An Australopithecus fossil is displayed at the University of the Witwatersrand. Picture: Themba Hadebe/AP
“I refused to be pushed, that's why it took so long,” says Clarke. “It was like excavating a pie with flaky pastry out of concrete.”
While Little Foot might be out of the cave, the search is still on for some of her missing bones. Stratford also said that by studying the surrounding breccia, scientists might find the remains of fossilised plant material that could reveal more about the world Little Foot lived in.
But what the bones so far are not saying is how this hominid died. Scientists suspect Little Foot fell into one of the many sinkholes dotting the landscape.
But there are no clear signs of this death in her bones. Clarke says he has an idea why Little Foot fell down that hole, but he is not telling for now.
He plans to spell out his theory in a future article to appear in an academic journal.