Professor Ron Clarke first found the bones known as "Little Foot" in 1994.
Professor Ron Clarke unveiled the complete skeleton of Little Foot at the University of Witwatersrand's Evolutionary Studies Institute yesterday, 6 December and also revealed that Little Foot is much larger than its names suggests.
"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 today", says Clarke.
Though now on display, scientists will continue to study Little Foot's anatomy to ascertain her place on the hominid family tree - and to shed further light on the story of early human evolution.
The bone fragments that were discovered in the rock led researchers into the cave in the hopes of finding additional fossil evidence, and by 1997 the team knew they had found something wonderful. Within two days of starting their search in July 1997, they found what they were looking for. Even then, Clarke surmised that the fossilized bones came from an Australopithecus species - the smallish, ape-like human ancestors that roamed this part of Africa millions of years ago. The results of these studies are expected to be published in a series of scientific papers in high-impact, peer-reviewed global journals in the near future. If the age of "Little Foot" is correct, that would make these findings 500,000 years older than "Lucy" - a collection of remains found in 1974 at the site of Hadar in Ethiopia.
It was embedded in a concrete-like rock called breccia, so excavating it from the cave was slow work.
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The rest of Little Foot was found embedded in the calcified ancient cave in 1997 and the excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting and analysis took 20 years.
"The process required extremely careful excavation in the dark environment of the cave".
"My assistants and I have worked painstakingly ever since, cleaning the bones from the breccia blocks and reconstructing the full skeleton", said Clarke.
The discovery is a source of pride for Africans, said Robert Blumenschine, chief scientist with the organization that funded the excavation, the Paleontological Scientific Trust (PAST). Lucy and Little Foot both belong to the Australopithecus genus but are separate species.
The results of the decades of studies will soon be released in a series of more than 25 scientific papers, the scientists involved say.