S. Africans report key find of ape-man skeleton.

December 9, 1998
1998 Web posted at: 11:06 a.m. EDT (1506 GMT)


—In a find called “momentous,” researchers Wednesday said they had discovered the first complete skeleton of a human ancestor dating back more than 3 million years.

The 4-foot-tall (1.22 meter) fossil, estimated to be 3.6 million years old, could provide long sought-after clues to human evolution.

It was discovered at Sterkfontein on the outskirts of Johannesburg, which was also the site of the discovery of South Africa's first hominid, or “ape-man,” skull in 1924.

Clue to the missing link

“Just one bone would be exciting but this is apparently the whole skeleton, the secret to knowing how the creature functioned. This eliminates any

Most of the skeleton remains embedded in a limestone cave
speculation,” said Professor Phillip Tobias, who led the team of researchers from South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

He told a news conference that the discovery was “probably the most momentous find ever made in Africa,” and said it would aid the search for the missing link in man's evolution from ape to human.

Past finds of ape-man fossils, including the oldest hominid bones, found in East Africa, have only been partial skulls or skeletons.

“We’re getting down nearer to the critical parting of the ways between apes and us — perhaps 5 to 7 million years,” Tobias said.

Mislabled bones led to find

The discovery followed three years of work after Wits researcher Ron Clarke chanced on ankle and foot bones while looking in a box incorrectly labeled “animal bones.” Clarke realized the bones belonged to the Australopithecus, a hominid which had both human and ape features.

Foot bones [here] discovered earlier at Sterkfontein.

Following up on the find, Clarke and his team discovered the remaining bones in university cupboards and by revisiting the cave in Sterkfontein where the ankle and foot bones were found.

Much of the skeleton remains embedded in fossil rock at Sterkfontein. Clarke said the complete significance of the skeleton would not emerge until after it had been unearthed from a 15-meter-deep limestone shaft.

“But what we do already know is that it will reveal a very great deal about the anatomy and evolution of an early ape- man,” Clarke said.

Foot bones discovered earlier at

Preliminary evidence shows that the ape-man not only walked upright, but was also a tree climber, he said.

Clarke’s assistants, Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi, described how they had spent a year in the dark, wet cavern chipping away at the limestone after finding a few bones discarded by limestone workers.

Clarke's findings appeared Wednesday in the South African Journal of Science and were due to be published Thursday in the journal Nature. He said there were signs of further hominid fossils at Sterkfontein, which the South African government has nominated to become a World Heritage site.

Fossil facts:

  • The recent find of a complete hominid skeleton comes 74
        years after South Africa discovered its first hominid fossil.

  • Researchers say the latest find is about 3.6 million years old,
        the oldest hominid skeleton yet discovered anywhere.

  • Previously, the oldest skeleton was "Lucy," found in Ethiopia
        and estimated to be 3.2 million years old.

  • Fragments of hominid remains as old as 4.5 million years
        have been found in East Africa.

  • The new discovery is the first of a mature adult.

  • Also See: "Skeleton Gives Glimpse of Human Roots" by Robert Lee Hotz

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