The Sterkfontein Caves and Little Foot

The Sterkfontein Caves, situated in the Cradle of Humankind at about 40 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, represent one of the world’s richest sites in hominid fossils, and discoveries there continue to astound the international scientific community.

The discovery, excavation and research on Little Foot through the years:

In the late 1890s gold miners dynamited the Sterkfontein Caves in search of limestone which they converted into the quick lime required for processing gold. Their explosions revealed entrances to the cave system as well as a profusion of fossil bone fragments from millions of years ago.
In 1936, palaeontologist Robert Broom began collecting fossils that had been blasted out by the miners. Many discoveries were made in the field of palaeoanthropology at the Sterkfontein Caves, particularly the finding of the first adult Australopithecus africanus in 1936, which followed the discovery in 1924 by Raymond Dart of the Taung child, the first Australopithecus fossil ever found. At Sterkfontein on April 18, 1947, Mrs Ples, the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus ever found, was discovered by Robert Broom and John T. Robinson.

And it is in 1994, that Prof. Ronald J. Clarke (University of the Witwatersrand) discovered the first four foot bones of a fossil nicknamed Little Foot, which led in 1997 to locating of the oldest Australopithecus skeleton found in South Africa and the most complete Australopithecus skeleton ever found in Africa (up to 97 %). In 2015 it was dated at 3,67 million years old. South Africa was the first region in Africa to produce very early fossils of our ancestors. Little Foot is described by Ronald J. Clarke and his team as Australopithecus prometheus – and not as Australopithecus africanus.

  • 1994: Ronald J. Clarke identified four conjoining Australopithecus footbones in a box containing animal bones from the Sterkfontein caves.
  • 1997: Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe were sent by Ron Clarke into one of the Sterkfontein caverns and found the contact between the first four foot bones with the rest of the tibia, the left tibia fragment ant the lower legs in the Sterkfontein cave. Beginning of excavations.
  • 1997 – 2014: Discovery and excavation of every part of the skeleton.
  • 2015: Reconstruction of the Little Foot fossil was nearing completion, following many years of work.
  • 2017 – 2018: Analysis of the skeleton by the Little Foot research team and preparation of papers for publication in scientific journals.
  • 2019: Celebration of the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the Australopithecus prometheus fossil.

The Sterkfontein Caves Research team is hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand and currently its main researchers are:

-Prof Ron J. Clarke (ESI)
-Prof Kathy Kuman (GAES)
-Dominic Stratford (GAES)
-Laurent Bruxelles (INRAP | CNRS | IFAS-Recherche)
-Amélie Baudet (CoE Palaeosciences | GAES)
-Prof Travis Pickering (University of Wisconsin)
-Prof Jason Heaton (Birmingham-Southern College)
-Prof Kris Carlson (University of Southern California)
-Tea Jashashvili (University of Southern California)
-Prof Robin Crompton (University of Liverpool)

Geoarchaeologist Laurent Bruxelles has been working with Prof. Ron Clarke, Dominic Stratford and the Sterkfontein Research team since 2007, studying the history and geology of the caves.

On April 3rd 2019, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the discovery of Australopithecus fossil Little Foot at the Résidence de France in Pretoria.

Publications about the discovery of Little Foot:

A selection of publications about Little Foot and the Sterkfontein Caves:

>” Sterkfontein member 2 foot bones of the oldest South African hominid” (1995)
>“First ever discovery of a well-preserved skull and associated skeleton of Australopithecus” (1998)
> “New cosmogenic burial ages for Sterkfontein
Member 2 Australopithecus and Member 5 Oldowan
” (2015)
>“The endocast of StW 573 (“Little Foot”) and hominin brain evolution”(2018)
>“The bony labyrinth of StW 573 (“Little Foot”): Implications for early hominin evolution and paleobiology” (2018)
>”Excavation, reconstruction and taphonomy of the StW 573 Australopithecus prometheus skeleton from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa” (2018)
> “A multiscale stratigraphic investigation of the context of StW 573 ‘Little Foot’ and Member 2, Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa” (2019)

>Documentary made by the CNRS (in English):

>Videos made by the University of the Witwatersrand:

Over the years, the Sterkfontein Caves Research team has received the support of many institutions, notably PAST (The Palaeontological Scientific Trust). IFAS-Recherche is very proud to be one of them since 2016.