Fossils – Linking the Past to the Present

Mankind has always been fascinated by the question of ancestry, with paleontologists regularly turning up finds that fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle of how humans have developed and adapted over centuries. One such valuable find is the Australopithecus sediba fossils discovered in August 2008 at the Malapa Fossil Site in an area known as the Cradle of Humankind, located around 45 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. The first specimen of a hominid clavicle, mandible and canine tooth was discovered by Professor Lee Berger’s young son Matthew, with further related fossilized remains later being unearthed by Professor Berger’s team.

The discovery caused quite a stir in scientific circles and reinforced this World Heritage Site’s status as truly being the Cradle of Humankind. What makes this find even more exciting is that this is an entirely new species of hominid, taking its name “sediba” from the Sotho name for natural spring or fountain. Could it be that the elusive “missing link” between ancient apes and modern humans has been found? While not going quite so far, Professor Berger, a paleoanthropologist from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has expressed his belief that the Australopithecus sediba could be the transitional species between the Australopithecus africanus, and either the Homo habilis or Homo erectus – renowned examples of which are Mrs. Ples and Taung Child, or Turkana Boy, Peking Man or Java Man, respectively.

These fossils of a juvenile male and adult female are believed to be around 2 million years old. It would appear that they were carried with a flow of debris into the ancient cave system where they were found. Other discoveries in the calcified clastic sediment containing the A.sediba remains include fossils of mongooses, antelopes and saber-toothed cats, which were most likely carried to their destination by the same flood. From the remains it has been determined that both the A. sediba specimens were 1.27 meters tall, with an advanced hip bone and long legs enabling it to stride or run in much the same way as humans, but its long arms and the shape of its hands are distinctly ape-like. The brain was a third of the size of an average human brain, but the shape was unlike that of an ape. As only two specimens have been discovered thus far, it may be that more will be unearthed from which more accurate conclusions can be reached. Certainly, the fossil rich area of South Africa‘s Cradle of Humankind continues to be explored with the expectation of finding more valuable links to our distant past.