Discoveries made in South Africa over the years have bolstered the claim that humankind had its origins on the African continent, and another recent finding suggests our ancient ancestors were even more advanced than first thought.
In May scientists revealed that while Homo naledi, a human relative estimated to have lived as many as 335,000 years ago, had a small brain, it may have exhibited complex behavior.
This is significant, as it has long been believed that brain size correlated to the intricacies of that organ — i.e., the larger the brain, the smarter the species. But scientists believe otherwise about Homo naledi, which was discovered in a South African cave in 2013.
Breakthroughs in this field are nothing new for South Africa, which has seen more than its share over nearly a century.
In 1924 the remains of the Taung Child (or Baby), a 3-year-old thought to have been killed by an eagle, were unearthed in Taung, a town in the northwestern part of the country. It was among the first early humans discovered in Africa, and the first to exhibit signs of upright, two-legged (i.e., bipedal) walking.
Twenty-three years later, in 1947, a skull was discovered in the Sterkfontein caves, some 40 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. It came to be known as Mrs. Ples, and is the most complete skull of the species Australopithecus africanus ever found in South Africa. (Earlier this year researchers announced that Mrs. Ples was likely a “Mr.”)
In the early 1990s the discovery of four Australopithecus foot bones, again in the Sterkfontein caves, led to the larger discovery of a nearly complete skeleton. Researchers spent roughly 20 years excavating the remains, which came to be known as Little Foot, and in December 2017 concluded they were some 3.67 million years old. While there is some debate about that, that would make Little Foot about 500,000 years older than Lucy, the renowned skeleton of a human relative discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.
The discovery in 2010 of the remains of the species Australopithecus sediba in Malapa Cave, some 15 kilometers northeast of Sterkfontein, represents the most recent major hominid finding in South Africa.