AUSTRALOPITHECUS AFRICANUS: TAUNG CHILD, LITTLE FOOT AND MRS. OR MR. PLES

AUSTRALOPITHECUS AFRICANUS


Taung child

“Australopithecus africanus” was the first discovered Australopithecus species. Size: Smaller than other Australopithecus species. males: 4 feet 6 inches, 90 pounds; females: 3 feet 9 inches, 66 pounds. Fragments suggest heights up to five feet. Not much larger than Lucy. Brain Size: 370 to 428 cubic centimeters. Nickname: Taung Child.

Australopithecus africanus is the oldest-known Australopithecus species in southern Africa. The 1.2-meter-tall hominin had long arms for climbing trees and lived in the region when the area of southern Africa that it lived was partly forested. As the climate became drier, the forests gave way to more open grasslands, and new hominids evolved.

Discovery Sites: In 1924 in Taung, South Africa (See Taung Child Below). In 1947 in Sterkfontein Cave, South Africa by R. Broom and J.T. Robinson. About half a skull is housed in the Transvaal Museum, Pretoria. Remains of other “ A. africanus” have been found in Sterkfontein and other South African caves. Sterkfontein produced the world’s oldest known complete Australopithecus skeleton.

Geologic Age 3.3 million to 2.1 million years, possibly 4 million years old. Coming up with accurate dates for “A. africanus” is difficult because there is no volcanic ash in the caves where they were discovered. Less accurate paleomagnetic dating techniques — based on the reversal of the polarity of the earth's magnetic fields at irregular intervals — has come up a date of three million years. [Source: Kenneth Weaver, National Geographic, November 1985 [┹]

In 2003, bones of “ A. africanus” found in Sterkfontein were dated to almost 4 million years ago using a sophisticated dating technique that measures the amounts of isotopes of aluminum and beryllium in materials found around the fossil. Is. If the dates hold up “ A. africanus” would be as old as some of the oldest Australopithecusspecies found in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Linkage to Modern Man: Anthropologists debate over whether this species was ancestral to all other hominins or only the ancestor of “Australopithecus robustus” and “Australopithecus boisei”.

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org; Hominin Species talkorigins.org ; Paleoanthropology Links talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations genographic.nationalgeographic.com ; Humin Origins Washington State University wsu.edu/gened/learn-modules ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; BBC The evolution of man" bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ArchaeologyInfo.com ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life ; PBS Evolution: Humans pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/evolution; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society paleoanthro.org; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization) iho.asu.edu/; The Leakey Foundation leakeyfoundation.org; The Stone Age Institute stoneageinstitute.org; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Turkana Basin Institute turkanabasin.org; Koobi Fora Research Project kfrp.com; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa maropeng.co.za ; Blombus Cave Project web.archive.org/web; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution journals.elsevier.com/; American Journal of Physical Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Evolutionary Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Comptes Rendus Palevol journals.elsevier.com/ ; PaleoAnthropology paleoanthro.org.

Australopithecus africanus Skull and Body Features

Skull Features: Compared to Lucy, the molars are much more pronounced, canines have virtually disappeared and jaw muscles are larger than those of Lucy. This indicates this species was better adapted for breaking hard nuts and chewing fibrous tubers. The braincase was higher and rounder.

“ Body Features: “ Not much larger than Lucy. Long powerful arms, short legs Muscle markings on some bones indicate a strong upper body build. Limbs adapted for bipedalism and moving through trees.

Teeth from many “ africanus” have been discovered. Judging from the amount of wear, and knowing at what age certain teeth sprout in modern men, scientists have determined that most “ africanus” died at the age of 22. The wear patterns are also similar to modern primates that feed mainly on leaves and fruit, which are usually found in tree branches far off the ground.

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Australopithecus africanus

Taung Child

The Taung Child skull was one of the greatest discoveries in the history of anthropology. The child died between 2 million years and 3 million years ago at around the age of six inside a cave. If his bones had been left anywhere else they would have withered away to dust.

Only slightly larger that a grown man's fist, the Taung Child skull was presented as evidence that upright walking could take before a large brain developed. Taung Child had a small brain and a hole for the spinal chord at the base of the skull (humans have a have a similar hole while other primates have the hole at the rear of the skull).

The Taung Child skull contains mysterious holes that have never been adequately explained. For a long time it was thought that the holes came from a leopard or saber tooth tiger that killed the boy. After witnessing a modern African crowned eagle fly off with a monkey, paleontologist Lee Berger of Witwatersand University in Johannesburg in South Africa suggested that the Taung Child was carried away by a similar raptor. African crowned eagle have been observed attacking animals that weigh as much as 40 pounds.

In January 2006, Berger told reporters that an African crowned eagle probably did kill the Taung Child. He said the “small puncture and keyhole slots” inside the eye socket and brain area could not have been made by a larger predator. “Carnivores can not create this kind of damage,” he said. “This child was killed by a single blow of a 14-centimeter talon into the brain...The eagle would have used it beak to eat out the eyes and the brain...some of the most nutritious parts...and created these marks.”

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Australopithecus africanus

Discovery of the Taung Child

The Taung Child fossil was found in 1924 by a mine worker excavating for lime after it had been inadvertently blasted out of a hillside in a South African village.He gave the skull to his boss who in turn gave it to Professor Raymond Dart at the University of Witwatersand in Johannesburg, the story goes, hours before he was to be the best man at his best friend's wedding.

Anxiously he went through the motions at wedding and afterwards rushed home where he used one his wife's knitting needles to clean the fossil. He knew he had made a great discovery and when he published his findings in the journal Nature he became an instant celebrity at the age of 32. Other hominin skulls had been discovered before this but none that were this old.[Source: Kenneth Weaver, National Geographic, November 1985 [┹]

Dart coined the term “ Australopithecus” ("southern ape"), a reference to the fact that the first Australopithecus fossils were found in southern Africa. “Australopithecus africanus” means "southern ape of Africa." Various pieces of evidence convinced Dart that the the fossil child was a bipedal human ancestor, a transitional form between apes and humans. According to one story he announced at a dinner in his honor, "Darwin's evolution of man was just a theory. I, Raymond Dart, have proved it!" and then burst into tears.


Raymond Dart

Rachel Newcomb wrote in the Washington Post, “Despite its small brain size the Taung Child skull had distinctively human features, including signs that its owner walked upright. But Dart’s finding contradicted prevailing scientific opinion, which held that the evolution of a large brain preceded other human adaptations, such as walking. Confirming this belief was the 1912 discovery of Piltdown Man, a skull found in a gravel pit in Piltdown, England. With its large cranium but otherwise apelike features, Piltdown Man supposedly represented the missing link between primates and humans, proving that humans came out of Asia and not Africa. [Source: Rachel Newcomb, Washington Post, July 14 2011]

Dart disagreed, and he enthusiastically published his findings. Yet the conservative scientific establishment savaged him, arguing that he had misidentified a mere primate. Among Dart’s other crimes were failing to follow proper research protocol and using “a “barbarous” combination of Latin and Greek in naming the specimen Australopithecus.” After this professional drubbing, Dart suffered a nervous breakdown, and the Taung skull languished for years as a paperweight on the desk of a colleague.

Twenty-three years later, Robert Broom, a maverick fossil hunter and physician who conducted his South African excavations under the blazing sun dressed “in a dark suit and waistcoat, long-sleeved white shirt, stiff butterfly collar and somber tie,” made his own discovery of an australopithecine, finally vindicating Dart. In 1953, scientists confirmed that Piltdown Man had been an elaborate 40-year hoax, a skull patched together from a combination of human and orangutan remains and artificially distressed to appear ancient. The Piltdown skull was only a few hundred years old; the Taung Child, however, was eventually dated at 2.7 million years. Broom’s discoveries finally turned the tide of scientific opinion toward accepting humanity’s origins in Africa.

Book: “Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life” by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2011]

Taung Child Brain

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Taung Child
Mo Costandi wrote in The Guardian: “Taung Child was found in 1924 in a limestone quarry near Taung, South Africa, and was the first Australopithecine specimen to be discovered. It belonged to an infant of three to four years of age, and is estimated to be approximately 2.5 million years old. The skull is incomplete, including the face, jaw and teeth, but it contains a complete cast of the brain case, which formed naturally from minerals that were deposited inside it and then solidified. [Source: Mo Costandi, The Guardian May 7, 2012 |=|]

“"Most of Taung child's brain case is no longer present, but you see all kinds of interesting structures in the endocast, like the imprints of the cortical convolutions," says study co-author Christoph Zollikofer. "We looked at the imprints of the sutures. These features are very well preserved, and have been known about for 50 years, but nobody paid attention to them." |=|

“In 1990, researchers from Washington University Medical School published a three-dimensional CT scan of the Taung Child endocast, and Falk subsequently reconstructed it again using more advanced computer technology. Comparison of this more recent reconstruction with scans of other species now reveal that the skull of Taung Child has a small, triangle-shaped remnant of the anterior fontanelle. |=|

“This suggests that Taung Child had a partially fused metopic suture at the time of death and, therefore, that the pattern of brain development in this Australopithecine species was similar to that of anatomically modern humans. Delayed fusion of the metopic suture indicates that fast brain growth in the period following birth came before the emergence of Homo, the genus that evolved from Australopithecines and eventually gave rise to our own species, Homo sapiens.” |=|

Little Foot


Australopithecus africanus discovery sites

“Little Foot,” an Australopithecus africanus specimen found in the Sterkfontein cave system in South Africa between 1994 and 1997, is the most complete Australopithecus skeletons ever found. The foot of 3- to 3.7- million-year-old hominin has an ape-like splayed toe and humanlike ankle which shows bipedalism evolved slowly. There are several debates surrounding Little Foot. One is his age; another is whether he Australopithecus africanus like Lucy are a different Australopithecus species.

Mariette Le Roux and Laurent Banguet of AFP wrote: Barely a meter tall, Little Foot fell into a 20-metre (66-foot) hole and died, possibly while running from a predator. The body rolled down a steep slope and came to land with its left arm stretched out over its head. Over the years, the remains, naturally mummified, were buried under more than 10 meters of sediment and rock, until they were uncovered in 1997.” [Source: Mariette Le Roux and Laurent Banguet, Agence France-Presse, March 14, 2014]

Jason Daley wrote in smithsonian.com: “Little Foot is one of the best-known skeletons in paleontology. Since the discovery of the bones of the young hominin between 1994 and 1997 researchers have dated the remains, examined the bones and published many papers on what is considered one of the most complete skeletons of a human ancestor ever found. [Source: Jason Daley, smithsonian.com, December 8, 2017]

“David McKenzie at CNN reports that in 1994, paleontologist Ron Clarke was looking through a box of fossils from the Sterkfontein cave system in South Africa that had been blasted out by lime miners. He found four tiny fragments of ankle bones he believed came from an early human ancestor. In 1997, he found more bones from the skeleton at a nearby medical school and decided to look for more of Little Foot in the cave itself.

“With his assistants, he found remains embedded in a concrete-like material called breccia. They cut Little Foot out of the breccia in blocks, then began the process of removing the tiny fragile fragments from the stone. It took until 2012 to locate and remove all traces of Little Foot from the cave. Then even more difficult work began. “We used very small tools, like needles to excavate it. That’s why it took so long,” Clarke tells the BBC. “It was like excavating a fluffy pastry out of concrete.”

“The results, however, are amazing. While Lucy, the most-famous early hominin skeleton found in Ethiopia in the 1970s is about 40 percent complete, Little Foot is 90 percent complete and still has her head, reports Elaina Zachos at National Geographic. She is believed to be a different species of Australopithecus than Lucy and may be older. Lucy is believed to be about 3.2 million years old while Clarke and his team have dated Little Foot to 3.67 million years, though that date is controversial. Zachos reports that Little Foot made her debut at the Hominin Vault at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg in December 2017.

'Little Foot', Human Ancestor?

Mariette Le Roux and Laurent Banguet of AFP wrote: “A short, hairy 'ape man' who tumbled into a pit in South Africa millions of years ago is back in the running as a candidate ancestor for humans A painstaking 13-year probe has "convincingly shown", they said, that the strange-looking creature named Little Foot lived some 3 million years ago – almost a million years earlier than calculated by rival teams.” The new study appears in a specialist publication, the Journal of Human Evolution. [Source: Mariette Le Roux and Laurent Banguet, Agence France-Presse, March 14, 2014 /*]


Taung Chold reconstruction


“If so, it would make Little Foot – so named for the diminutive size of the bones – one of the oldest members of the Australopithecus hominin family ever found. "Some have said South Africa is too young" to have given rise to modern humans, said Laurent Bruxelles from France's National Institute for Archaeological Research (Inrap), who took part in the study. "We are putting Little Foot and South Africa back in the running." /*\

“Another challenger for the title of human ancestor was "Lucy," a specimen of a different strand of Australopithecus – the genus that had both ape and human features, walked upright, and is believed to have given rise to Homo sapiens, or anatomically modern humans, via Homo habilis. Lucy's skeleton, uncovered in Ethiopia in 1974, has been dated to about three million years, although as always in fossils, there is a big margin of uncertainty. "No longer are the Australopithecus of East Africa, like Lucy, the sole candidates" to have been our ancestors, said Bruxelles.”

Controversy Over Little Foot’s Age

Little Foot's age has been a controversial topic. Mariette Le Roux and Laurent Banguet of AFP wrote: “The Sterkfontein caves, northwest of Johannesburg, do not contain volcanic sediment, as do the east African fossil sites, which is easier to date. This has caused estimates of Little Foot's age to fluctuate quite drastically – anything from 1.5 to 4.0 million years, though the most extreme estimates have long been ruled out. /*\

“In 2006, a paper in the journal Science estimated its age at 2.2 million years, based on chemical dating of the layers of stone around the fossil. Now Bruxelles and a team of French and South African scientists said calcite deposits dubbed "flowstones" that enveloped Little Foot were much younger than the fossil itself. "The dated flowstones filled voids formed by ancient erosion and collapse," said a statement from the University of the Witwatersrand. "The skeleton is therefore older, probably considerably older, than the dated flowstones." /*\

“The discovery of Little Foot was met with great excitement – estimated at first to be about 3.3 million years old, it would have been a contemporary of Lucy. But the later, younger, dating threatened Little Foot's place in the human evolutionary picture. "There is a lot at stake here," said Bruxelles. "Homo habilis appeared about 2.5 million years ago, which means that Little Foot could not have been our ancestor if it lived later than that." /*\


Taung Child facial reconstruction


“Robert Cliff, a member of the team that authored the 2006 Science study, told AFP there was no reason to doubt the age of the rocks they measured. But, he added: "The fact that what we dated was not the fossil itself, may leave open the possibility that the relationship between our (stone) samples and the fossil was more complicated than we thought at the time." Far older fossils of hominins have been found in East Africa and Chad that predate the known rise of Australopithecus, but their lineage, if any, to our ancestors remains unclear.” /*\

Mrs. Ples

Mrs. Ples is the nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus — and one of the most perfect pre-human skulls — ever found in South Africa. It was discovered by Robert Broom and John T. Robinson in 1947 it was found near Sterkfontein, where many Australopithecus fossils have been found, about 40 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg in the UNESCO-designated “Cradle of Humankind” World Heritage Site. Because of Broom's use of dynamite and pickaxes to excavate the site, Mrs. Ples's skull was blown into two pieces and some fragments are missing. Nonetheless. The skull is currently displayed at the Ugandan National Museum. It has been dated by a combination of palaeomagnetism and uranium-lead techniques to around 2.05 million years.[Source: Wikipedia +]

Mrs. Ples has cranial capacity of only about 485 cubic centimetres (29.6 cubic inches) — about 40 percent of that of modern humans. It was was one of the first fossils to reveal that walking upright evolved long before significant growth in brain size. The nickname "Mrs. Ples" was coined by one of Broom's young co-workers. It is derived from the scientific designation Plesianthropus transvaalensis (near-man from the Transvaal), that Broom initially gave the skull. It was later subsumed into the species Australopithecus africanus. In scientific publications the specimen is referred to by its catalogue number, STS 5. +

Some experts have argued that a partial skeleton, known only by its catalogue number of STS 14, discovered in the same year, in the same geological deposit and in proximity to Mrs. Ples, may belong to the Mrs. Ples skull. If that is true, Mrs. Ples — as a largey complete skeleton — would be the South African of counterpart of Lucyto the famous Lucy fossil.

Is It Middle-Aged Mrs. Ples or Youthful Mr. Ples

The sex of the Mrs. Ples is a matter of some controversy. Some say he is more likely Mr. Ples than Mrs. Ples may. Moreover, X-ray analysis and other say his teeth suggested it was an adolescent. Comparing Computed Tomography (CT) scans of STS to CT scans of more recently discovered A. africanus skulls from Sterkfontein, paleoanthropologist Federick E. Grine determined that Mrs. Ples was indeed a middle-aged female. The CT scans allowed Grine to reconstruct images of the roots of the teeth, in order to see how the molar and canine teeth developed, which allowed to him to estimate age and sex.. However, the matter is not entirely settled. Other studies have concluded he was youthful male. [Source: Wikipedia]


Mrs. Ples


Thrishni Subramoney wrote in maropeng.co.za: “In 2002, Professor Francis Thackeray of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and Professor José Braga of Paul Sabatier University, Toulouse, France, produced research suggesting that Mrs Ples was male. This idea was disputed 10 years later by Professor Fred Grine of Stony Brook University, the State University of New York. [Source: Thrishni Subramoney, maropeng.co.za, January 31, 2018]

“Now, in the latest twist to this tale, Thackeray and Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane, the curator of Plio-Pleistocene fossils at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria, have produced new research that shows that Mrs Ples was “probably a young male” after all. Tawane and Thackeray’s research has been published in the South African Journal of Science. “In many primates, we find a general distinction between the size of canine teeth,” Thackeray explains in an email to Maropeng about the research. “The pattern is simple: large canines are typically found in males, and small canines occur in females.

““Unfortunately in the case of Mrs Ples, all the teeth are missing (they were not preserved 2.5-million years ago). However, it has been possible to measure the sockets, where the teeth had once been in place. In 1950, Dr Robert Broom had measured the canine sockets of Mrs Ples. We have been able to compare these measurements against those of other specimens that are known to be males or females. The results are striking. Mrs Ples fits in a group of males, distinct from the female group.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFPand various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018


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