Little Foot

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Little Foot
Little Foot 01.jpg
Catalog no.Stw 573
Common nameLittle Foot
SpeciesAustralopithecus, species uncertain
Age2.2–3.3 mya
Place discoveredSouth Africa
Date discovered1994
Discovered byRonald J. Clarke

"Little Foot" (Stw 573) is the nickname given to a nearly complete Australopithecus fossil skeleton found in 1994–1998 in the cave system of Sterkfontein, South Africa.[1][2] The nickname "little foot" was given to the fossil in 1995. From the structure of the four ankle bones they were able to ascertain that the owner was able to walk upright. The recovery of the bones proved extremely difficult and tedious, because they are completely embedded in concrete-like rock. It is due to this that the recovery and excavation of the site took around 15 years to complete.[3]


The location where the remains of Little Foot are being excavated

The four bones of the ankle were collected in 1980 but were undetected between numerous other mammal bones. Only after 1992, on initiative by Phillip Tobias, a large rock was blown up in the cave that contained an unusual accumulation of fossils. The fossils recovered were taken from the cave and scrutinized thoroughly by paleoanthropologist Ronald J. Clarke.[4]

In 1994 while searching through museum boxes labelled 'Cercopithecoids' containing fossil fragments, Ronald J. Clarke identified several that were unmistakably hominin. He spotted four left foot bones (the talus, navicular, medial cuneiform and first metatarsal) that were most likely from the same individual.[5] These fragments came from the Silberberg Grotto, a large cavern within the Sterkfontein cave system. They were described as belonging to the genus Australopithecus, and catalogued as Stw 573.[6]

Due to the diminutive nature of the bones, they were dubbed "Little Foot". Clarke found further foot bones from the same individual in separate bags in 1997, including a right fragment of the distal tibia that had been clearly sheared off from the rest of the bone.[7]

Early in 1997 two fossil preparators and assistants of Clarke, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe, were sent to the Silberberg Grotto to try to find the matching piece of tibia that attached to this fragment. Amazingly, within two days they found the remaining part of the bone protruding from the rock in the lower part of the grotto.[8] Because the bones of both legs were in anatomically correct arrangement, the team speculated that it could be a complete skeleton, which was embedded with the face downward in the limestone. In the following months, Clarke and his two assistants with the help of a hammer and small chisel uncovered further foot bones. Stephen Motsumi discovered the first remains of the upper body, an upper arm bone on 11 September 1998, and eventually the head of the individual was seen as well. It was a skull connected with the lower jaw, which was facing up. These were announced to the press in 1998, resulting in considerable media attention around the world.[5]

A year later, in July and August 1999, a left forearm as well as the corresponding left hand was discovered and partly uncovered. These were again in anatomically correct arrangement. Subsequent work has uncovered a relatively complete skeleton, including parts of the pelvis, ribs and vertebrae, a complete humerus and most of the lower limb bones. This discovery is likely to be far more complete than the famous Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, "Lucy", from the site of Hadar, Ethiopia. Clarke reported this discovery six months later and explained that all previous analyses indicated that the fossil's body was apparently complete and was possibly slightly moved by ground movements and also not damaged by predators.[9] It took Clarke and his team two full decades to fully extricate, clean, and analyze the specimen, work that was finally completed in 2017.[10]


First, the discovery (archive No. STW 573) was not assigned to any particular species in the genus Australopithecus. In the first description in July 1995 it was said, "The bones are probably an early member of Australopithecus africanus or another early species of hominids". After 1998, when a part of the skull had been discovered and uncovered, Clarke pointed out now that the fossils were probably associated with the genus Australopithecus, but whose 'unusual features' do not match any Australopithecus species previously described.[11]

Clarke now suggests that Little Foot does not belong to the species Australopithecus afarensis or Australopithecus africanus, but to a unique Australopithecus species previously found at Makapansgat and Sterkfontein Member Four, Australopithecus prometheus.[12][13]

Following the discovery of the approximately two million year old Australopithecus sediba, which had been discovered just 15 km away from Sterkfontein in the Malapa northern cave in the year 2008,[14] the assumption was made that an ancestor of Australopithecus could be sediba. As with any new discovery, there is always an argument between the lumpers and the splitters.[15]

Little Foot foot bones


Due to the lack of volcanic layers at the site, dating was difficult. An estimated date was published in 1995, which was based on relative dating of old world monkeys and some carnivores.[16] The dates ranged from 3.0- 3.5 million years old, and it was due to this that the fossils were described as the oldest known representative of hominids in South Africa.[17]

This date was heavily criticized in 1996 and was thought to have been dated too old. A second analysis put the date around 2.5 million years old and was more widely accepted. Another study on Little Foot came to a similar conclusion in 2002, revising its age at "younger than 3 million".[18]

The controversial dating on this fossil is primarily due to the age of formation of the rocks that surrounded its fossilized skeleton. The reason for the 2.2 million years dating is primarily caused by the age of flowstones that surrounded the skeleton. These flowstones filled voids from ancient erosion and collapse and formed around 2.2 millions years ago, however the skeleton is thought to be older.[19][20]

The Little Foot specimen dating made in 2015, estimates it to 3.67 million years old by means of a new radioisotopic technique.[2][21] Results in 2014 estimated the specimen to be around 3.3 million years old. Earlier attempts date it 2.2 million years,[19] or between 3.03 and 2.04 million years.[22]

How "Little Foot" lived[edit]

In 1995, the first description of the four first discovered foot bones was published. The authors explained that this Australopithecus specimen walked upright but was also able to live in trees with the help of grasping movements. This would be possible due to the still opposable big toe.

The construction of the foot differs only slightly from a chimpanzee. Clarke saw foot bones discovered in 1998 which confirmed this initial assessment. His description, according to the known Laetoli footprints of Australopithecus and the arrangement of the foot bones discovered in the Silberberg Grotto, exhibits a high degree of compliance.

In his 1999 description of the fossil bones of the hand, Clarke pointed out that the length of the palm of the hand as well as the length of the finger bone was significantly shorter than that of chimpanzees and gorillas.[23] The hand was like that of modern humans, known as relatively unspecialized.

Referring to predator finds, who lived at the time of the Australopithecus in Africa, Clarke joined the view of Jordi Sabater who in 1997 had argued sleeping on the ground at night was too dangerous for Australopithecus.[24] He believed it seemed more likely that Australopithecus slept in the trees, similar to today's living chimpanzees and gorillas that make sleeping nests. Due to the features of the fossil, he also believed it likely that Australopithecus spent parts of their days searching for food in the trees.[25]

At the end of 2008, Clarke published a reconstruction of the circumstances which allowed the fossil to remain so unusually well preserved in contrast to other bones found in the same cave, which apparently had been washed over longer periods of time in their final storage location. The fossil also shows no damage by predators so the assumption can be made that the fossils were not moved to the cave to be fed on by predators. However, individual bones are broken, which possibly can be traced back to the quarry work in the early 20th century. The opening could have become clogged with materials such as rocks, so no water could penetrate and wash away the bones of the remaining carcass.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Geggel, Laura (11 December 2018). "'Miracle' Excavation of 'Little Foot' Skeleton Reveals Mysterious Human Relative". Live Science. Retrieved 11 December 2018.
  2. ^ a b Medrano, Kastalia (6 December 2017). "Africa: Newly Revealed 3.6 Million-Year-Old Skeleton of Young Girl Fuel Debate Over Where Humans Originated". Newsweek. Retrieved 6 December 2017.
  3. ^ Reiner Protsch von Zieten, Ronald J. Clarke: The oldest complete skeleton of an Australopithecus in Africa (StW 573). In: Anthropologischer Anzeiger. Band 61, 2003, S. 7–17
  4. ^ Die Darstellung der Fundgeschichte folgt einer Beschreibung von Donald Johanson im Editorial zum Newsletter des Institute of Human Origins der Arizona State University vom Mai 2005 sowie in der Fundbeschreibung von Clarke aus dem Jahr 1998 im South African Journal of Science, Band 94, S. 460 f.
  5. ^ a b Clarke, R.J. (1998). First ever discovery of a well-preserved skull and associated skeleton of an Australopithecus. South African Journal of Science, 94; 460–463.
  6. ^ Clarke, R.J. and P.V. Tobias (1995). Sterkfontein Member 2 foot bones of the oldest South African hominid. Science 269, 521–524.
  7. ^ Ronald J. Clarke, Phillip Tobias: Sterkfontein member 2 foot bones of the oldest South African hominid. In: Science. Band 269, 1995, S. 521–524; doi:10.1126/science.7624772
  8. ^ Fossil Hominids: Stw 573 (Little Foot)
  9. ^ Ronald J. Clarke: Discovery of the complete arm and hand of the 3.3 million-year-old Australopithecus skeleton from Sterkfontein. In: South African Journal of Science. Band 95, 1999, S. 477–480
  10. ^ David McKenzie, "Ancient human ancestor 'Little Foot' makes public debut", CNN, 6 December 2017 [1]
  11. ^ I prefer to reserve judgement on the fossil’s exact taxonomic affinities, although it does appear to be a form of Australopithecus“. Zitiert aus Clarke, The first discovery of a well-preserved skull…, S. 462
  12. ^ Clarke, R.J., (2008) "Latest information on Sterkfontein's Australopithecus skeleton and a new look at Australopithecus"; South African Journal of Science, Vol 104, Issue 11 & 12, Nov / Dec, 2008, 443–449. See also "Who was Little Foot?" The Witness, 20 March 2009.
  13. ^ Bower, Bruce, (2013) "Notorious Bones"; Science News, August 10, 2013, Vol. 184, No. 3, p. 26.
  14. ^ Ron J. Clarke: Latest information on Sterkfontein's Australopithecus skeleton..., S. 443
  15. ^ Tim White: Early Hominids – Diversity or Distortion? In: Science. Band 299, Nr. 5615, 2003, S. 1994–1997, doi:10.1126/science.1078294
  16. ^ Michael Balter: Little Foot, Big Mystery. In: Science. Band 333, Nr. 6048, 2011, S. 1374, doi:10.1126/science.333.6048.1374
  17. ^ So Jeffrey K. McKee von der südafrikanischen Witwatersrand-Universität in einem Technischen Kommentar in Science, Band 271, 1. März 1996, S. 1301
  18. ^ Lee R. Berger et al.: Revised age estimates of Australopithecus-bearing deposits at Sterkfontein, South Africa. In: American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Band 119, Nr. 2, 2002, S. 192–197; doi:10.1002/ajpa.10156
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^
  21. ^ Gardner., Elizabeth K.; Purdue University (April 1, 2015). "New instrument dates old skeleton before 'Lucy'; 'Little Foot' 3.67 million years old". Science Daily. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
  22. ^ Herries, A.I.R., Shaw, J. 2011. Palaeomagnetic analysis of the Sterkfontein palaeocave deposits; age implications for the hominin fossils and stone tool industries. J. Human Evolution. 60, 523-539.
  23. ^ ts foot has departed to only a small degree from that of the chimpanzee.“ Clarke und Tobias, in Science, Band 269, 1995, S. 524
  24. ^ Jordi Sabater Pi et al.: Did the First Hominids Build Nests? In: Current Anthropology. Band 38, Nr. 5, 1997, S. 914–916; doi:10.1086/204682
  25. ^ "I also think it probable that it spent parts of the day feeding in the trees, as do the orang-utans and chimpanzees." Clarke, South African Journal of Science, Band 95, 1999, S. 480
  26. ^ Ron J. Clarke: Latest information on Sterkfontein’s Australopithecus skeleton and a new look at Australopithecus. In: South African Journal of Science. Band 104, 2008, S. 443–449

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 26°00′57″S 27°44′04″E / 26.01583°S 27.73444°E / -26.01583; 27.73444