Prof Ron Clarke’s work on  Little Foot is almost done — he has spent 17 years excavating the fossilised skeleton of one of our early human ancestors.  Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Prof Ron Clarke’s work on Little Foot is almost done — he has spent 17 years excavating the fossilised skeleton of one of our early human ancestors. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Twenty years after paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke began excavating the 3.67-million-year-old Little Foot fossil skeleton, it has finally been unveiled to the public. It goes on display today at the Hominin Vault in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Little Foot is remarkable because it is virtually complete: most fossil finds are just fragments of skeletons, but it is missing only parts of its feet, pelvis and kneecaps. This makes it the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor older than 1.5-million years.

Clarke discovered fragments of Little Foot in 1994, when he was sorting through a box of animal fossils from the Silberberg Grotto in Sterkfontein that had been removed more than a decade earlier. He spotted four articulating foot bones that he recognised as belonging to an early human ancestor, then sent his assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe into the Sterkfontein cave with a piece of broken shin bone to find a match. Two days later, they did just that.

Since then, Clarke has painstakingly excavated, cleaned and reconstructed Little Foot. It has been an extraordinarily long process because the skeleton was encased in concrete-like breccia.

Unveiling of the skeleton of Little Foot at Wits University on December 6. Picture: NALEDI SHANGE
Unveiling of the skeleton of Little Foot at Wits University on December 6. Picture: NALEDI SHANGE

"The process required extremely careful excavation in the dark environment of the cave. Once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton’s bones were exposed, the breccia in which their undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning in the lab at Sterkfontein," said Clarke, who is professor emeritus at the Evolutionary Studies Institute.

Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib said the excavation of Little Foot was a landmark achievement for the global scientific community and SA’s heritage. "It is through important discoveries like Little Foot that we obtain a glimpse into our past which helps us better understand our common humanity," he said.

Clarke and an international team of experts are finalising a series of scientific papers on Little Foot. which are expected to be published next year.

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