“Lucy” is the best-known representative of her species: Australopithecus was an early representative of the human genus, which still exhibited many attributes of the ape. You thought you knew a lot about him – but a new dating throws the previous theories overboard.

The Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa are a special place. Not only have people lived here for millions of years – people of different species – their remains have also been preserved in the cool cave shafts for a long time. Sterkfontein is now also known as the “cradle of mankind” and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The first sensational finds were made here as early as the 1930s, but the most famous “inhabitant” of the caves was only found in 1995: “Little Foot” is one of the most complete skeletons of the early human species Australopithecus known to researchers worldwide. Australopithecus lived about 4.2 million years ago, the youngest specimens are dated about two million years. After that, his trace disappears – mankind had evolved, other human species replaced him.

Australopithecus lived many millions of years ago

Thanks in part to the finds from South Africa, scientists thought they already knew a lot about Australopithecus. For example, that although he was reminiscent of apes in many respects, he undoubtedly belonged to the genus Homo. He still had a rather small brain, a small stature – but he walked upright, on two legs. Whether he used tools is not certain – it is clear that the early Australopithecus finds are older than the oldest dated stone tools. However, it is possible that this species was the one that, in the course of its existence, began to make everyday life easier with tools.

However, a number of fossils from the Sterkfontein Caves have puzzled researchers because dating them has been difficult. This is often a problem with petrified finds. Therefore, most attempts are made to find datatable material in the layers of earth around the bones or to estimate the age from animal bones found in the same layer. A number of Australopithecus fossils from the caves had therefore previously been assumed to be around two to 2.6 million years old – so they would have lived closer to the end of the Australopithecus era.

Found fossils are older than thought

But now a team of researchers has made a new attempt at dating using more modern technology, using parts of the concrete-like sediment that directly surrounded the fossilized bones. And the results were astounding: the fossils were a full million years older than assumed, so early humans lived in South Africa around 3.6 million years ago. They are older than their famous colleague “Lucy” (3.2 million years) from Ethiopia. The previously erroneous results are believed to have arisen when the soil layers in the cave were disturbed during excavations in the 1930s.

The dating is important because it overturns one of the researchers’ thesis: Up until now, it was assumed that Australopithecus had spread across the continent from East Africa, and the remains of “Lucy” were a clue. But since the South African fossils are just as old and even older – and also very numerous in number – one must now assume that the South and East African representatives of the species evolved simultaneously from an even older, common ancestor.

Those: CNN