The search for humans’ most ancient ancestors began in South Africa, where some of paleoanthropology’s most iconic fossils have been found.
South Africa plays a central role in the history of paleoanthropology. Anthropologists and other scientists of the 19th and early 20th century balked at the possibility that Africa was humankind’s homeland—until an ancient hominid was unearthed in South Africa in 1924. Since then, Africa has become the center of human evolution fieldwork, and South Africa has produced a number of iconic hominid fossils and artifacts. Here is a totally subjective list of the country’s most important hominid discoveries.
Taung Child: In 1924, anatomist Raymond Dart pried a tiny fossilized partial skull and brain from a lump of rock. The bones were the remains of a child. The youngster looked like an ape, but Dart also recognized some human qualities. He decided he had found a human ancestor that was so ancient it was still ape-like in many ways. (Later, scientists would determine the bones were nearly three million years old). Dart named the hominid Australopithecus africanus. The Taung Child, known by the name of the place where the fossils came from, was the first australopithecine ever discovered—and the first early hominid found in Africa. After the discovery, anthropologists who were searching for humanity’s origins in Europe and Asia switched their attention to Africa.
Mrs. Ples: Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, paleontologist Robert Broom led the efforts to find hominids in South Africa. He scoured the region’s limestone caves and quarries—the Taung Child came from a quarry—and was well rewarded for his efforts. Of the numerous fossils he uncovered (sometimes with the help of dynamite), his most influential find was a roughly 2.5-million-year-old skull of an adult female hominid now known as Mrs. Ples. Unearthed in 1947 at a site called Sterkfontein, the skull was well preserved and displayed the same mix of ape and human features seen in the Taung Child. Finding an adult version of A. africanus helped convince skeptics that the species was an ancient human ancestor. Some anatomists had thought Taung was just an ape and would have developed more pronounced ape-like features, and lost its human-like traits, as it grew up. Instead, Mrs. Ples showed that the species retained its mix of human and ape traits throughout life.
STS 14: Another one of Broom’s key finds is a set of well-preserved post-cranial bones that includes a pelvis, partial spine, ribs and upper thigh. Like Mrs. Ples, these fossils were found in 1947 at Sterkfontein and date to about 2.5 million years ago. The bones are officially known as STS 14 (STS refers to Sterkfontein) and presumably belonged to an A. africanus individual. The shape of the pelvis and spine are remarkably modern, and the find was some of the first evidence that early human ancestors walked upright on two legs.
SK 48: In addition to finding a trove of A. africanus specimens, Broom, along with his many assistants, discovered a new hominid species: Paranthropus robustus. The first hints of the species came in 1938 when Broom acquired a jaw fragment and molar that were much larger and thicker than any fossils belonging to A. africanus. Broom collected more of the unusual fossils and then hit the jackpot in 1950. A quarry worker found a nearly complete skull of an adult hominid that had giant teeth and a flat face. The fossil is officially called SK 48 (SK refers to the cave of Swartkrans where the skull was found). The collection of fossils with big chompers, which the hominids used to chew tough foods, was given the name P. robustus, which lived in South Africa about 1.8 million to 1.2 million years ago.
Little Foot: In the early 1990s, anthropologist Ron Clarke of South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand found four small australopithecine foot bones at Sterkfontein. Later, Clarke and his colleagues discovered a nearly complete skeleton embedded in limestone that belonged to the foot. The researchers are still carefully chipping away at the rock to release the skeleton, dubbed Little Foot, but they have already noted that the individual has some characteristics not seen in any other known species of Australopithecus. But since the bones haven’t been fully studied and shared with other scientists, it’s hard to know where the hominid sits in the family tree, Science reported last year. It’s also hard to know exactly how old it is. Clarke’s team places the fossils at 3.3 million years old while other groups using different dating methods say Little Foot is more like 2.2 million years old. Science reported that Little Foot was expected to be fully liberated from its rocky enclosure sometime this year. As far as I know, that hasn’t happened yet.
Australopithecus sediba: The most recent major hominid fossil discovery in South Africa occurred in 2010. Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand led a team that found two partial hominid skeletons at Malapa Cave. Dating to nearly two million years ago, the skeletons indicate that these hominids had their own unique style of walking and spent time both on the ground and in trees. X-ray scans of one of the skulls reveals that some aspects of the brain were more modern than in previous species. Berger and his colleagues therefore think the species, which they named A. sediba, could have given rise to the genus Homo.
Origins of Modern Behavior: Fossils aren’t the only major human evolution discoveries from South Africa. Several coastal cave sites have been treasure troves of artifacts that reveal when and how sophisticated behavior and culture emerged in early populations of Homo sapiens. There have been too many of these discoveries to single any one out. Some of these finds—such as red pigments used 164,000 years ago and shell beads dating to 77,000 years ago—are among the earliest evidence for symbolic thinking in our ancestors. Other artifacts, like 71,000-year-old projectile weapons, indicate early humans could construct complicated, multipart tools that require a lot of planning and foresight to make.