New dating from a Sterkfontein cave in South Africa has given Australopithecus africanus fossils a million years old.
The famous Australopithecus Lucy, discovered in Ethiopia, had a contemporary cousin living a few thousand kilometers in southern Africa, around 3.5 million years ago, according to a study that invites us to consider the “cradle of humanity” across the African continent.
New dating from a Sterkfontein cave in South Africa, northwest of Johannesburg, has given fossils of Australopithecus africanus, one of the species of Australopithecines, those predecessors of the human race.
Among them, the fossil of “Madame Plus”, one of the first complete skulls of this genus of hominins, discovered in 1947 on this site full of calcite caves, which yielded several thousand fossils, including 500 of Australopithecines, listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site under the name of “Cradle of Humanity”.
The area housing “Madame Plus” had previously been dated to be between 2.1 and 2.6 million years old, based on the age of sediments that fell into the cave after its formation. But “chronologically, it didn’t fit,” recalls Laurent Bruxelles, CNRS researcher, one of the authors of the study published this week in the journal PNAS.
The little sister of “Little Foot”
“It was weird to see Australopithecines persisting for so long”, explains this geologist to AFP: at 2.2 million years ago, Homo habilis (the first representative of the genus Homo) had already appeared in the region. However, no trace of him, or of his tools, at this level of the cave.
Another disturbing fact: the emblematic skeleton of “Little Foot”, an even older Australopithecus found deep in the cave, and which recent research had just dated to 3.67 million years ago… The time gap with its “little sister”, “Madame Plus”, was too big considering the thickness of the sedimentary layers separating them.
With the dating of “Little Foot” (older than Lucy), quarrels had arisen over the location of the cradle of humanity, in the East or in the South of the African continent. By revealing these new parallel destinies, this latest study invites us to consider, once again, this notion on a continental scale.
The excavations of the Sterkfontein site – far from having revealed all its secrets – confirm that the tree of human evolution is more “bushy than linear” , comments the French geologist, quoting Yves Coppens, the famous paleontologist who died last last week at age 87. Lucy’s co-discoverer had “understood the Pan-African side of evolution for a long time ,” says Laurent Bruxelles.