The oldest and most complete skeleton of human ancestors debuted Wednesday after a team of scientists spent 20 years excavating, cleaning and assembling the various bones that are now known as "Little Foot".
He explained that the name Little Foot was coined by Wits Paleontology professor Phillip Tobias who, upon seeing the size of skeleton's foot bones, said they should refer to her as Little Foot.
Named "Little Foot", the skeleton was found about 40 kilometres outside Johannesburg by miners, blasting rocks inside the Sterkfontein caves.
Professor Ron Clarke from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg initially found four small footbones in 1994.
At 3.67 million years old, and with its entire skeleton now excavated from the cave, Little Foot is the oldest species of its kind to be found in Southern Africa and the oldest in the world.
"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", said Clarke. Within two days of searching, they found such a contact, in July 1997.
After 20 years of careful excavation, paleontologists are finally ready to present the world's most complete Australopithecus fossil found to date.
The results of the decades of studies will soon be released in a series of more than 25 scientific papers, the scientists involved say.
Importantly, her presence suggests that hominins were spread out farther across Africa than previously thought, and she's the first skeleton that allows a comparison between arm length and leg length in a single individual. It has been an extraordinarily long process because the skeleton was encased in concrete-like breccia. "Once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton's bones were exposed, the breccia in which their undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning in the lab at Sterkfontein".
Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand says: "This is a landmark achievement for the global scientific community and South Africa's heritage".
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).
South Africa's "Cradle of Humanity", a large piece of land made up of hills and plains outside of Johannesburg, was the site of many ancestral discoveries - including this most recent unveiling of the hominid nicknamed "Little Foot".