By Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Within the dank confines of a South African cave, scientists have discovered the virtually complete fossil remains of what could be one of humanity's earliest ancestors.
Dubbed "Little Foot," the 3.5 million-year-old fossil is expected to give new insights into the physical traits and capabilities of a species of early hominid.
"Exactly how much will be revealed by the skeleton will not emerge for about a year," says Ron Clarke, the University of Witwatersrand anthropologist who led the team making the discovery. "But what we do know is that it will reveal a very great deal about the anatomy and evolution of this early ape-man." Until now, anthropologists have had to rely on fragmentary evidence - partial skulls and partial skeletons, never from the same individual - in their attempt to learn if the species, known as Australopithecus africanus, falls in the line of human evolution. As a result, "we know enough to be controversial," says Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In the past few years, he explains, enough bone fragments have been discovered to suggest that A. africanus's build was "an intriguing amalgam of human and ape-like traits." Now, he says, anthropologists will have a chance to test their notions on a complete specimen. Indeed, he adds, the specimen could prove to be a different species altogether. The South African research team notes that Little Foot's skull has features that appear only on another early hominid, Australopithecus robustus. But this species wasn't known in South Africa until about 1.8 million years ago. "This could be something new, adding a really interesting hominid deep down on humanity's family tree," Dr. Potts says THE discovery involved some instinctual detective work as well as the usual chiseling. …