New analysis of an early Australopithecus specimen discovered in South Africa puts the “Ape Man’s” age at roughly 800,000 years earlier than scientists previously thought. The nearly complete skeleton of the prehistoric hominid, nicknamed “Little Foot,” is now believed to be around 3 million years old, putting him in the running with other famous Australopithecines as human’s earliest forefather.
"No longer are the Australopithecus of East Africa, like Lucy, the sole candidates,” Laurent Bruxelles, a paleontologist from France's National Institute for Archaeological Research, told AFP.
Bruxelles and a team of scientists from France and South Africa have spent 13 years excavating the Sterkfontein Caves of Gauteng, South Africa, a site renowned for producing several fossils of the ape-man Australopithecus. Little Foot was the most complete specimen uncovered from Sterkfontein.
Little Foot, who stood barely a meter (3.3 feet) tall, died after he fell 20 meters into a hole. His remains were naturally mummified under several meters of sediment and rock and stayed there until they were unearthed in 1997.
Researchers determined Little Foot’s age by comparing the position of the skeleton to the age of the calcareous flowstone surrounding the hominid. Previous analysis had concluded that the age of the flowstone and the age of Little Foot were the same, but Bruxelles and his team found that the flowstone came into contact with the skeleton only after it filled the voids in the cave caused by ancient erosion and collapse.
The study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, says that Little Foot is closer to around 3 million years old, not the 2.2 million years researchers initially estimated. That means Little Foot walked around the same time as his better-known counterpart Lucy.
Lucy is the name given to the skeleton of a female Australopithecus afarensis, an extinct hominid species thought to be closely related to the genus Homo. The remains were discovered in 1974 in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia. The early hominid is thought to be around 3.2 million years old.
Lucy was the first Australopithecus afarensis skeleton ever uncovered and is probably the world’s most famous early human ancestor. She had long dangling arms, stood three and a half feet tall and walked upright.