Early Visions

Early Visions

terrainYesterday “Little Foot” had her coming out party. Little Foot is an Australopithecine, an ancient hominid who fell into a cave in southern Africa where she remained until meticulously exhumed 3½ million years later.

Little Foot is the third almost complete skeleton of a very early hominid. The chances of this are so infinitesimal as to be mind-boggling. It’s a testament of course to remarkable technology but also to the very astute critical thinking and unique dedication of modern paleontologists. If you’re a whiz kid looking for the most exciting scientific career, I’d look down as much as up.

Mary & Lewis Leakey, the parents of modern paleontology, toiled embarrassingly for 27 years before finally finding what they were looking for: Australopithecus bosei or Nutcracker Man. Ron Clarke who discovered Little Foot 20 years ago just announced the completed discovery yesterday!

In the Leakey’s case they were driven by a dedication to the truth of evolution and hard work. Certainly that governed Clarke’s life as well, but he was impeded mostly by rock!

Little Foot was probably a 30-year old 3½-foot tall woman, aged and probably infirm in those days, who met her end when she slipped into a cave. We don’t know, of course, whether she was washed in by a downpour or lost her alertness being chased by something or just suffered from poor eyesight like lots of us old people.

After she fell and died Little Foot settled in for millions of years of geological and chemical change. Time and water and other sediment turned her into rock, along with everything else around her! I’m sure you’ve seen insects frozen in amber. Well, these were hominids frozen in rock!

That’s more or less what happens with every fossil. The great treasure of early men found in East Africa were all initially preserved at the bottom of swamps or edges of lakes, and they too turned into rock. But time is much harsher to these softer resting places than it is to the deep well of a cave.

Wind and earthquakes and torrential rains and battalions of mastodons trouncing the earth shake things up a lot more on the desert plains than deep inside a cool cave.

In East Africa the early men were ultimately exposed by erosion as the swamps and lakes dried up and the wind blew away the coverings of dust. That also fragments and scatters remains helter skelter.

Less blows away in a cave. Everything sits quietly together … well, for millions of years. Above it’s storming and quaking and the great super rhinos are stomping the earth, but down in the cave it’s as quiet as outer space. It all turns into rock together, big hunks of rock!

You can imagine how difficult it is to remove benign rock from the rock that was once the bone or tooth of a hominid. In East Africa the rock that is an ancient fossil is usually surrounded by dirt or volcanic ash. Scientists there mostly use tooth brushes. In caves scientists have developed some remarkable nano-blasting tools which when combined with just the mind-blowing perseverance of a scrape-by-near microscopic scrape finally reveals an ancestor.

We need a better word than patience.

So how does “Little Foot” advance our understanding of early man?

Well a lot of this we’ve know for a number of years as Ron Clarke never hid the facts as they revealed themselves year by year, as some notorious paleontologists have done.

We know that she’s significantly different from other Australopithecine, a species of pre-man bi-pedal post-ape creature that held reign on earth for longer than any other man-like thing ever did, probably for two million years. (In our current modern form we’ve reigned for only a fraction of that time, maybe only an eighth.)

She’s different mostly in her shorter arm length and developed hands. Almost all the early hominids so far discovered have very long arm lengths. “Lucy” and “Turkana Boy” – two of the other nearly complete early man skeletons – both had long arms like apes do, today. Long arms were necessary for creatures who spent most of their lives in the trees and in true Tarzan fashion, “swinging” more than “walking”.

But Little Foot’s arms are shorter. Her hands are more developed and fragile, clearly not just to be used for branch swinging. As hominid’s hands became more intricate they could start examining smaller things around them, and ultimately, begin fashioning tools.

Scientists still believe Little Foot spent her nights at least in the trees, but clearly Little Foot was coming down to earth a lot faster than her other ancient relatives.

Finding Little Foot, Lucy and Turkana Boy spans almost two million years of human evolution. Suppose that means 100 billion different man-like creatures lived over that period of time, which I consider a very conservative estimate. Some few were shielded from the forces of the world, and an unbelievably tiny minuscule fraction of those – 3 – would ultimately be found pretty much in tact and seen by us today as they lived in that so far distant past.

What luck, right? Yes, but you know that old expression, you make your luck. That’s the essence of today’s remarkable paleontologists.