Clarke, was inspecting the Swartkrans hominids when he noticed something unusual about these fragments: They did not match with .
In fact, the skull fragments had features more like those of humans.
Bags and trays full of artifacts and fossils lie in the sun off to one side.
“Every one of these big discoveries is coming out of this tiny area,” says John Hawks, a professor of anthropology at UW–Madison who helped lead the excavations that culminated in the discovery and descriptions of , for instance, a team of archaeologists (including then UW–Madison graduate student Alia Gurtov) squeezed its way through underground passageways — some not much wider than a mailbox — and worked in near darkness to delicately remove the bones.
“This kind of cave exploration is a difficult beast,” says Hawks.
An arid grassland is dotted with clustered stands of trees, fenced-off areas and warning signs marking openings to the below-ground Rising Star cave system, part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg.
“The origins of humankind, of humanity, is an African story,” says Travis Pickering, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has spent most of his career studying fossils in South Africa.
Discovered serendipitously in 1997 by Clarke and two assistants, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe, Little Foot was meticulously excavated over the course of two decades from the concrete-like rock called breccia that makes up most South African anthropological sites.
Pickering got involved three years ago, contributing his expertise in taphonomy — what happens to bones after death.“Little Foot allows us to create a fully formed story of the anatomy of these animals as a genus,” says Pickering.As the warm midday sun begins to chase away the morning’s chill from the Swartkrans field school site, a group of students huddles over sifting screens to sort artifacts.At one sifting screen, Wits professor Kathleen Kuman, considered one of the world’s preeminent early-human archaeologists, sorts animal bones and flakes of stone left over from stone tools produced as long as 2.6 million years ago.At the other, Wits field assistant Andrew Moyagabo Phaswana sorts larger materials with the help of a student.Eight students from UW–Madison, along with Recognise Sambo, a South African graduate student, excavate material from the two pits.