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Dr Ron Clarke
'There it is' - Ron Clarke takes the BBC's Andrew Luck-Baker into the Sterkfontein caves
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Wednesday, 15 December, 1999, 13:52 GMT
African ape-man's hand unearthed


Scientists have uncovered a complete hand and arm of the ape-man Australopithecus - the first discovery of its kind.

The fossil bones are likely to yield dramatic new details about the anatomy and behaviour of this distant cousin to modern humans.

SAJS The hand will give us new insight into Australopithecus behaviour
It should also tell us something about how our own hands and arms evolved.

The remains were found in a cave at Sterkfontein, South Africa, by Dr Ron Clarke and his assistants who have been working on the site for several years.

Late last year, the team reported the discovery of a complete ape-man (hominid) skull and associated remains at the same location. Dr Clarke is currently on site as deputy director of a research unit attached to Witwatersrand University.

This latest discovery probably comes from the same individual but the palaeoanthropologists are having to recover the hominid part by part because the different sections of the specimen have become separated in rock movements that have occurred over time.

Powerful thumb

The hand and arm are still partially encased in rock. It will be some time before they can be removed and taken to a laboratory for closer investigation. Nevertheless, an early study of what has already been exposed is reported in the South African Journal of Science.

SAJS The researchers hope to recover the entire skeleton
In the paper, Dr Clarke says his team looked at the stalagmites in the cave to get a more accurate date for when the skeletal remains were laid down. This palaeomagnetic analysis shows the creature must have died at least 3.3 million years ago.

The arrangement of bones appears to show a left arm that is stretched above the head with the fingers clenched. The hand bones of the skeleton are of similar length to those of modern humans but the thumb is much more powerfully constructed, and the finger bones are curved like those of apes.

The elbow joint has some similarities to that of the orang-utan, although the Sterkfontein bones are not excessively elongated like those of that ape, which uses its long arms and fingers for suspending itself from branches as it moves through the trees.

"The hand is going to reveal so much information about the way of life of this ape-man, because for the very first time we can see the complete thing," Dr Clarke told the BBC. And in his journal paper he writes: "There is potential for understanding the way in which it [the forelimb] functioned and its evolutionary relationship to the arms and hands of modern humans and apes."

Bones and trees

What has been learnt over the years about Australopithecus - of which there were several species - suggests that the creature walked upright and ate plant foods and small animals, when they could be caught.

It is not thought that human lineage goes directly back to Australopithecus - it is more probable that we shared a common ancestor.

Dr Clarke's previous work has led him to believe that the hominids spent much of their time in the trees. The nature of the bones discovered in Sterkfontein strengthens that view, he says.

"To judge from the fossil remains of several species of big cat and of hunting hyaenas that inhabited the Sterkfontein region at the same time as Australopithecus, it would have been unsafe for the hominids to spend the nights on the ground."

Dr Clarke believes further excavation at lower levels in the cave will eventually lead to the discovery of the rest of the skeleton, and in particular the upper part of the thigh bones. This will allow a comparison to be made between leg length and arm length. This is crucial for a comparison with modern apes, which have long arms relative to leg length.

SAJS The bones will be removed to a laboratory

The Sterkfontein discoveries are featured in a BBC Radio 4 series telling the story of human evolution from its early ape-man beginnings in Africa. 'Origins - The Human Factor', will be broadcast in the UK at 2100 GMT, 26 January, 2 February and 9 February 2000. It will also be broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 website.

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See also:
10 Dec 98 |  Sci/Tech
Skeleton find could rewrite human history
06 May 99 |  Sci/Tech
Ancient 'tool factory' uncovered
23 Apr 99 |  Sci/Tech
Fossil find may be 'missing link'
25 Jan 99 |  Sci/Tech
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