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Friday, 14 September, 2001, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Major hominid find in southern Africa
The oldest known hominid fossils yet found in southern Africa have been uncovered at the world-famous Sterkfontein Caves just north of Johannesburg.

The remains, which include limb-bone and skull fragments, have been dated to be about 3.5 million years old.

We don't even know how many individuals they represent

Dr Phillip Tobias
They were discovered by Dr Ron Clarke, and colleagues, of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Sterkfontein is probably the richest site on Earth for the fossils of early humans (hominids), and the ancient cave system is now part of a World Heritage Site.

A statement from the University said the new discoveries were about 200,000 years older than the "Little Foot" hominid, whose four foot bones were pulled out of the limestone caves in 1996.

As with Little Foot, the new fossils probably belong to the genus Australopithecus, but a colleague of Dr Clarke said it was not possible to say whether they represented one or more individuals.

Graphic BBC
"They have been dated but they have not yet been studied," Dr Phillip Tobias said. "We don't even know how many individuals they represent.

Older hominid fossils have been uncovered in East Africa, with finds in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. One recent discovery was even claimed by the scientists involved to represent humanlike creatures that walked the Earth six million years ago.

Scientists hope the Sterkfontein and East Africa finds will shed light on our lineage and provide clues to why and when we split off from the common ancestor we are thought to share with apes.

"From the molecular evidence such as DNA it had been held for many years that humans and apes, chimpanzees in particular, parted company five to seven million years ago," said Dr Tobias.

"But new evidence in Ethiopia and Kenya is forcing us to push that parting of the ways back further in time to perhaps as far back as seven to nine million years ago," he said.

Some 600 hominid fossils from the Sterkfontein Caves have now been collected and classified. The early humans they represent are thought to have fallen to their deaths in the caves when the limestone complex first broke the surface.

See also:

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Flat-faced man is puzzle
07 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
'Oldest' ape-man fossils revealed
15 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
African ape-man's hand unearthed
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