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18 April 2015
New instrument dates ancient skeleton

At 3.67 million years, the skeleton named 'Little Foot' is among the oldest hominid skeletons dated. The rare, nearly complete skeleton of Australopithecus was first discovered 21 years ago in a cave at Sterkfontein, in central South Africa. The new date places Little Foot as an older relative of Lucy, the famous Australopithecus skeleton found in Ethiopia, dated at 3.2 million years old. It is thought that Australopithecus is an evolutionary ancestor to humans.
     Stone tools found at a different level of the cave were dated at 2.18 million years old, making them among the oldest known stone tools in South Africa.
     Ronald Clarke, a professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, who discovered the Little Foot skeleton, says: "We have only a small number of sites and we tend to base our evolutionary scenarios on the few fossils we have from those sites. This new date is a reminder that there could well have been many species of Australopithecus extending over a much wider area of Africa."
     The dating relied on a radioisotopic technique pioneered by Granger, coupled with a powerful detector originally intended to analyse solar wind samples from NASA's Genesis mission. The result was a a relatively small margin of error of 160,000 years for Little Foot and 210,000 years for the stone tools.
     The new Sterkfontein date for the Oldowan artefacts shows that this stone tool industry is consistently present in South Africa by 2 million years ago, a much earlier age for tool-bearing hominids than previously anticipated in this part of Africa.
     Kathleen Kuman, a professor in earlier and middle stone age archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, concludes: "It is now clear that the small number of Oldowan sites in southern Africa is due only to limited research, and not to the absence of these hominids."

Edited from PhysOrg (1 April 2015), The Telegraph (2 April 2015)

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