Lit­tle Foot”, an extra­or­di­nary fos­silised skele­ton of an ear­ly form of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus, is 3.67-million years old, mak­ing it the old­est known hominid from the Cra­dle of Humankind. The find­ing of Lit­tle Foot, deep inside a Sterk­fontein cav­ern, was one of the most remark­able dis­cov­er­ies ever made in the field of palaeoanthropology.

Lit­tle Foot, big find

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Lit­tle Foot in the Sterk­fontein Caves

The sto­ry of how Lit­tle Foot was found, more than 3-mil­lion years after he fell into the cave, is almost as remark­able as the skele­ton itself.

In 1994, palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Ron Clarke was in the work­room at Sterk­fontein, sort­ing through a box of ani­mal bones from the Sil­ber­berg Grot­to in the caves, when he came across four foot bones which he realised belonged to an Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus. The fol­low­ing year, he and esteemed palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Phillip Tobias, also of the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand, announced the dis­cov­ery of the fos­sil Stw 573, nick­named Lit­tle Foot”, con­sist­ing of four artic­u­lat­ing foot bones. The bones had actu­al­ly been found in 1980, but had not been recognised.

Then, in 1997, Clarke dis­cov­ered more bones in a box of mon­key fos­sils, which he realised also belonged to Stw 573. The­bones had orig­i­nal­ly been blast­ed out by lime min­ers, and the bro­ken bone from the sec­ond leg was among them. Clarke guessed that because there were bones from two feet, the rest of the skele­ton could still be in the caves.

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Ron Clarke, Stephen Mot­su­mi and Nkwane Molefe

He gave his tech­ni­cal assis­tants, Stephen Mot­su­mi and Nkwane Molefe, a cast of the bro­ken tib­ia, or shin bone, and asked them to search for the piece from which it had been snapped in the vast and dark Sil­ber­berg Grot­to – a task akin to find­ing the prover­bial nee­dle in a haystack. Search­ing with only hand-held lamps, the two men aston­ish­ing­ly found the match­ing bone after just two days. It was embed­ded in brec­cia, deep inside the Sil­ber­berg Grotto.

Clarke said he realised there was an aus­tralo­p­ithecine skele­ton lying some­where in the Sterk­fontein Caves when he found the bro­ken bone from the sec­ond leg, which lime min­ers had blast­ed from the brec­cia a cen­tu­ry before.

Describ­ing the extra­or­di­nary dis­cov­ery, Clarke said:
When I found the sec­ond tib­ia, that’s when I knew [there was a skeke­ton]. I realised we had both legs. I didn’t know that we’d find it, but I knew the skele­ton must be there and we must look for it. But the chances were almost nil. No-one was more sur­prised than me when Stephen said, We think we’ve found the bone!’ He seemed low-key, though. The impact of what it meant was like a dream.I said to him am I dreaming?’”

He added: Alun Hugh­es [Clarke’s pre­de­ces­sor who exca­vat­ed Sterk­fontein] had a recur­rent dream of break­ing through into a cav­ern and find­ing a com­plete skele­ton. By chance we made his dream a reality.”

Lit­tle Foot is still lying par­tial­ly in brec­cia, while Clarke painstak­ing­ly exca­vates it. Once ful­ly revealed, Lit­tle Foot will present unique insights into the world of our aus­tralo­p­ithecine ancestors.

Who was Lit­tle Foot and how did he get into the cave?

Lit­tle Foot lived in the Cra­dle of Humankind some­time between 3.67-million years ago. An ear­ly form of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus, he was small­er than most mod­ern humans, and had a small­er brain. He walked upright but, thanks to his pow­er­ful hands and a slight­ly diver­gent big toe, was bet­ter at climb­ing than we are. This was impor­tant as he prob­a­bly slept in the safe­ty of trees at night, to escape the prowl­ing preda­tors, like sabre-toothed cats and hunt­ing hye­nas that roamed his world.

Lit­tle Foot prob­a­bly fell into a deep shaft that was cov­ered with under­growth. Per­haps he was flee­ing from a beast of prey and didn’t see where he was going, or was run­ning in pur­suit of, or away from, a rival aus­tralo­p­ithecine. He would have orig­i­nal­ly fall­en at least 10 m (about 30 ft) into the cave. He nev­er got out.

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The com­plete Lit­tle Foot’ skele­ton was unveiled in 2017

Many of his bones are frac­tured and slight­ly dis­placed. Much of this dam­age was caused when the mid­dle of his skele­ton col­lapsed into a cav­i­ty many thou­sands of years ago and, over time, rocks tum­bled onto his bones. As his bones are still artic­u­lat­ed, his body was appar­ent­ly mum­mi­fied before being cov­ered by sed­i­ments. The sed­i­ments were sub­se­quent­ly cal­ci­fied, and the skele­ton was pre­served in brec­cia for mil­lions of years.

Lit­tle Foot appears not to belong to Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus, but prob­a­bly to an ear­li­er species yet to be deter­mined after the skele­ton is ful­ly excavated.

What makes Lit­tle Foot so spe­cial is that, at between 4.1-million and 3.3-million years old, he is not only one of the most ancient human ances­tors yet dis­cov­ered, but, also, his skele­ton is almost com­plete – a rare find. Usu­al­ly, fos­sil hominid bones are found in frag­ments, their rela­tion­ships to one anoth­er the sub­ject of sci­en­tif­ic hypoth­e­sis. Because Lit­tle Foot is so com­plete, this spec­i­men can be stud­ied in its total­i­ty, with­out conjecture.

This almost com­plete aus­tralo­p­ithecine is one of the most impor­tant hominid dis­cov­er­ies ever made, and con­tributed to the Cra­dle of Humankind being declared a World Her­itage Site in 1999.

Read more about the Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus genus and the many species so far identified.