Exciting fossil discovery in the Cradle of Humankind

  • February 17, 2009

The Cradle of Humankind comprises many palaeontological sites – all together, there are 15 sites which make up the World Heritage Site.

The Cradle of Humankind has once again yielded a treasure. Strands of hominid hair from the Gladysvale Caves, which form part of the Cradle, are the oldest ever found. 

According to the University of the Witwatersrand researchers who made the find, the hair is the first non-bony material in the early hominid fossil record. Found in hyena dung preserved in calcified cave sediment, the hair is thought to be between 195 000 and 257 000 years old – far older than the 9 000-year-old hair from a mummy discovered in South America, which, until now, was considered the oldest human hair.

Dr Lucinda Backwell, a researcher at the Bernard Price Institute at Wits University, says, “The discovery of these hairs supports the hypothesis that hyenas accumulated some of the early hominid remains in cave sites in South Africa. Based on modern brown hyena behaviour, the human was more likely scavenged than hunted.

“It is the high calcium content in hyena coprolites [fossil dung], together with the calcium-rich drip from the cave roof, that facilitated the fossilisation process at Gladysvale,” she continues.

According to Backwell, we will never know the original colour of the hair because total mineral replacement has transformed it into high-resolution calcium carbonate casts. The short length of the pieces retrieved so far makes it difficult to say whether they were wavy or straight.

“The pieces are only a few millimetres long, and at this scale all hair looks like a straight rod,” Backwell says. “Advances in analytical techniques may in future shed more light on what the person looked like, their state of health, and who knows what else?”

No DNA survives in the fossilised hair.

Maropeng Curator Lindsay Marshall says, “This discovery shows that the riches the Cradle has to reveal are far from exhausted. As we enter the 10th year of this World Heritage Site, who knows what awaits the scientific community in the next 10 years? It is further reason for the South African public to be immensely proud of this World Heritage Site.”

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