Researchers say it has taken more than 20 years to excavate, clean, reconstruct and analyse the remains.
Palaeoanthropologist Professor Ron Clarke unveiled for the first time to the public, the Little Foot fossilised hominid skeleton at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on December 6, 2017.
The skeleton dates back 3.6 million years. Even then, Clarke surmised that the fossilized bones came from an Australopithecus species - the smallish, ape-like human ancestors that roamed this part of Africa millions of years ago. Its discovery is expected to help researchers better understand the human ancestor's appearance and movement.
The fossil skeleton takes its name from the small foot bones discovered by scientist Ron Clarke in 1994 when he was sorting through bones in boxes from the Sterkfontein cave system.
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"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 today", said Clarke in a statement.
"Little Foot" had lain deep within the Sterkfontein Caves, north-west of Johannesburg, for 3.67 million years before blasts by lime miners brought the bones to the surface. Within two days of starting their search in July 1997, they found what they were looking for.
In the 20 years since the discovery, they have been hard at work to excavate and prepare the fossil.
According to Dr. Clarke, the skeleton study should feed some twenty scientific articles in the coming years. The results of these studies, which will include the scientific value of the find, are expected to be published in a series of scientific papers in peer-reviewed worldwide journals in the near future.
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The process of removing the bones from the caves was painstaking, as the fossil had "very fragile bones", which were "extremely soft" and "buried in a natural concrete-like material", he added.
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). The continent is also the wellspring of everything that makes human qualities, including supreme intellect, artistic ability, and technological prowess.
Clarke said every hominid fossil that was discovered was important to the understanding of our ancestors.
The scientific value of the find and much more will be unveiled in a series of papers that Prof Clarke and a team of worldwide experts have been preparing, with many expected in the next year.
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