Africa: Newly Revealed 3.6 Million-Year-Old Skeleton of Young Girl Fuels Debate Over Where Humans Originated

After more than two decades of work excavating and restoring the oldest hominid skeleton ever discovered in southern Africa, scientists have finally unveiled it to the public. According to CNN, the scientists involved will soon publish more than two dozen scientific papers on the last 20 years of work on the famous skeleton, known as Little Foot.

"This is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of human origins research and it is a privilege to unveil a finding of this importance," Ron Clarke, the scientist who originally discovered the bones in the 1990s, told the BBC.

886952182 Paleoanthropologist professor Ron Clarke unveiled for the first time to the public the Little Foot fossilised hominid skeleton at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on December 6. MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

Little Foot’s exact age is unknown, but it is believed to be around 3.67 million years old. As the BBC pointed out, this would make Little Foot about half a million years older than Lucy, our other most famous ancestor (skeleton).

Like Lucy, Little Foot belongs to the genus Australopithecus. You may remember from high school biology that in taxonomic rank, the only rank more specific than genus is species, and that’s where Lucy and Little Foot diverge.

According to CNN, the team of scientists referred to Little Foot as a member of the Australopithecus prometheus species. According to National Geographic, this is Clarke’s preferred classification, but “most researchers” believe the skeleton belongs to a member of Australopithecus africanus. Either way, it comes from southern Africa. Lucy, who belonged to the species Australopithecus afarensis, could have lived only in East Africa.

886952206 The Little Foot fossilised hominid skeleton is unveiled for the first time to the public at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on December 6. MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

Little Foot, according to the BBC, was likely a young girl who fell down a shaft into the limestone Sterkfontein caves, near Johannesburg in South Africa. The nearby Cradle of Humankind is widely believed to be the point of origin for human evolution. But, as outlets like National Geographic have explained, we might also have come from East Africa.

For nearly a century, significant paleoarchaeological finds in both southern Africa and East Africa have fueled debate about the location of our origin. But, as National Geographic explains, the 2008 discovery of an unprecedented number of human fossils at Malapa in South Africa has helped the Cradle of Humankind pull ahead. And in 2015, scientists announced they'd discovered the bones of a new human ancestor, Homo naledi, in a cave in South Africa.

Little Foot strengthens the case for humans originating in the Cradle of Humankind.

"It might be small, but it might be very important. Because that's how it started, with one little bone. And it helps us to understand our origins," Clarke told the BBC.

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