Maropeng hosts the unveiling of an unprecedented fossil discovery

  • April 08, 2010
Sediba unveiling

University of the Witwatersrand Vice-Chancellor Loyiso Nongxa, Deputy President of South Africa Kgalema Motlanthe and Professor Lee Berger unveil the Sediba fossils.

By Camilla Bath

A new species of hominid has finally been unveiled at Maropeng, in the Cradle of Humankind, lifting a veil of secrecy that lasted for over a year and a half. Today’s groundbreaking announcement was attended by high-profile members of academia, government and South African society.

The fossilised remains of Australopithecus sediba, believed to be almost 2-million years old, took centre stage at today’s launch, even though they spent most of the event safely under a blue satin cover. The man behind the discovery, Dr Lee Berger, shared the podium with his colleague, Dr Paul Dirks, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and University of the Witwatersrand Vice-Chancellor Loyiso Nongxa.

A scientific duet

Berger and Dirks performed what they termed a “duet” to announce this landmark new find.

Berger took to the microphone first, describing the process that led to their discovery as a “grand adventure” by some 60 scientists from all corners of the world.

“It all began in early 2008 … It was an extraordinary experience that’s taken us on a journey of discovery and adventure.”

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Prof Lee Berger with his family, including his son Matthew, who helped discover Australopithecus sediba

In August of that year, Berger, his then nine-year-old son, Matthew, and their family dog, Tau, went to the Malapa caves and visited the site that would change their lives forever; a site the scientist describes as “just a little pit in the ground”.

“I ‘knew’ there were no fossils there. And I was completely wrong. We walked to the edge of the pit and I said ‘Ok, let’s go find fossils’. So off go Matthew and Tau, and maybe a minute had gone by and Matt said, ‘Dad! I’ve found a fossil!’”

Matthew believed he had found a fossilised antelope bone; but he had, in fact, picked up a collarbone belonging to a young member of the new species.

“I knew it was not an antelope,” Berger, ever the showman, told the excited crowd that had gathered at Maropeng to hear about his “great discovery; the rarest of the rare”.

Young Matthew’s discovery on August 18, 2008, sparked an intensive investigation of the Malapa site, where Berger and his team soon unearthed what are two of the most complete early hominid skeletons ever found – one male, one female; one young, one older.

A more reserved Dirks then edged into the spotlight, taking his audience through the methods he used to explain what had happened to the pair, and explaining the significance of the skeletons’ articulation:

“The bones were fitting together. Normally these pieces would have fallen apart … It means the fossils died soon before they were buried.”

Berger added it was quite possible the two hominids had known one another: “It’s likely they would have known each other in life; they would have looked into each other’s eyes and may well have been related.

“These bodies were utterly remarkable and utterly unexpected. Their pelvis is very near in its morphology to yours and mine; their legs are long like that of a human, but their ankles and feet are something different.

“We have never seen a hominid species that looks like this. I hypothesise that … sediba makes, possibly, the best ancestor of the Homo genus. It’s possible, even, that it’s a direct ancestor of Homo erectus.

“Here is a new species of human ancestor.”

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Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane greets Prof Phillip Tobias at the unveiling of Australopithecus sediba

Where did we come from?

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was on hand to help Berger and Nongxa reveal the fossilised remains of the young boy, aged between 11 and 13, with a flourish of blue satin.

He described the discovery as an event that “opens an unusually panoramic window, revealing more about our African origins ... As every parent knows, one of the most common questions a child asks when they are first capable of reason is, ‘Where do I come from?’ It has become increasingly clear in recent years that the answer to that question is ‘Africa – your ancestors are from Africa.’”

Motlanthe added, “This announcement writes another page in the largely unwritten record of our origins, offering a new perspective on the evolution of humankind. These time travellers have found their way into the present, and, with the assistance of our scientists, they are able to speak to us from the distant past.”

Nongxa described today’s announcement as an “historic event” and “a revelation that will unlock the secrets of our human heritage, millions of years old”.

He continued, “This revelation, which provides new, groundbreaking evidence of our world almost two million years ago, will, I believe, become a touchstone for the way in which we think about ourselves as human beings, and our world.”

After the pomp and ceremony of the event subsided, the fossils themselves once again became the stars of the show, the unexpectedly creamy bones lying quietly on royal blue velvet, glinting in the light of flashing camera bulbs.

The partial skeleton has already been installed in the Maropeng exhibition space, and will be on show to the public for 10 days from tomorrow, April 9.

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