South Africa may be the original home of humankind after all

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South Africa may be the original home of humankind after all

By Antony Sguazzin

Johannesburg: Fossils of early human ancestors in South Africa may be 1 million years older than previously thought, according to a new study, putting the country back in contention for the place where humankind may have originated.

The study of hominin remains from the Australopithecus genus found at the Sterkfontein Caves north of Johannesburg – including the famed Mrs Ples fossil – puts their ages at between 3.4 million and 3.6 million years, Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand said in statement. That would make them older than the Lucy fossil found in Ethiopia in 1974, which is 3.2 million years old.

The cranium of Australopithecus sediba from the Malapa site, South Africa.

The cranium of Australopithecus sediba from the Malapa site, South Africa.Credit:Brett Eloff/University of the Witwatersrand

“This important new dating work pushes the age of some of the most interesting fossils in human evolution research, and one of South Africa’s most iconic fossils, Mrs Ples, back a million years to a time when, in East Africa, we find other iconic early hominins like Lucy,” Dominic Stratford, director of research at the caves and one of the authors of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, said in a statement.

Research at Sterkfontein began in 1936 when palaeontologist Robert Broom discovered the first adult hominin fossil. Since then, hundreds of similar finds have been made at the site, and many were originally thought to have lived 2 million to 3 million years ago. Those finds, an earlier one in 1924, came ahead of the discoveries in East Africa, which began in 1959.

The new age estimation was made using the radioactive decay of aluminium and beryllium isotopes in the rocks buried at the same time as the fossils, according to the researchers. Earlier estimates were based on calcite flowstone deposits that are now believed to be younger than the rest of the rocks found in the cave. East African fossils were easier to date due to the presence of volcanic material.

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“South Africa was largely ignored because it was so difficult to date the fossils. They were largely dismissed as not being relevant to the story of human evolution,” Ronald Clarke, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand and an author of the paper, said in an interview.

“It’s a big deal, this does confirm that these primitive ancestors were all over Africa.”

Bloomberg

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