UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, JOHANNESBURG

New Sediba fossils found in rock

12 July 2012

South African scientists will share the country’s latest fossil discovery with the world using live virtual technology.

Scientists from the Wits Institute for Human Evolution based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg today announced the discovery of a large rock containing significant parts of a skeleton of an early human ancestor. The skeleton is believed to be the remains of ‘Karabo’, the type skeleton of Australopithecus sediba, discovered at the Malapa Site in the Cradle of Humankind in 2009.

Justin Mukanku from the Wits Institute of Human Evolution spotted the tooth.Professor Lee Berger, a Reader in Palaeoanthropology and the Public Understanding of Science at the Wits Institute for Human Evolution, will make the announcement at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in Shanghai, China on Friday, 13 July 2012 at 09:00 South African standard time. Prof Berger is visiting China as part of a South African delegation promoting trade, business and tourism relations between the two competitive city regions, Gauteng and Shanghai.   

New discovery

“We have discovered parts of a jaw and critical aspects of the body including what appear to be a complete femur (thigh bone), ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements, some never before seen in such completeness in the human fossil record,” says Berger. “This discovery will almost certainly make Karabo the most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered. We are obviously quite excited as it appears that we now have some of the most critical and complete remains of the skeleton, albeit encased in solid rock. It’s a big day for us as a team and for our field as a whole.”

The remains are invisible to the casual observer and are entrenched in a large rock about one metre in diameter. It was discovered almost three years ago, but lay unnoticed in the Wits laboratories until early last month. Prof. Berger and his wife Jackie Smilg, a radiologist at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, who is conducting her PhD on the CT scanning of fossil material embedded in rock, scanned the large rock in a state of the art CT scanner.

A world first – Live Science!

In an unprecedented gesture of open access to science and public participation, the University of the Witwatersrand, the Gauteng Provincial Government and the South African national government announced that for the first time in history, the process of exploring and uncovering these fossil remains would be conducted live, captured on video, and conveyed to the world in real time. This will allow members of the public and the scientific community to share in the unfolding discovery in an unprecedented way.

A laboratory studio, designed in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, will be built at the Maropeng Visitor Centre in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. It will allow the public to view the preparation of this skeleton live if they visit Maropeng, or live on the internet. “The public will be able to participate fully in Live Science and future discoveries as they occur in real time – an unprecedented moment in palaeoanthropology,” explains Berger. “The laboratory studio will be also linked to laboratories at Wits University and the Malapa site.”

"We are excited to have helped make this cutting-edge facility possible for the University of the Witwatersrand," says National Geographic Executive Vice President Terry Garcia. "We can't wait to watch palaeontology happening in real time."

Gauteng MEC for Economic Development, Qedani Mahlangu, said: “We are proud to be part of this programme which proves that Gauteng is indeed a world-class City-Region at the forefront of scientific discovery and technological development. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world.”

Virtual outposts

Mahlangu also indicated that access to the laboratory studio would not be limited only to visitors to the Cradle of Humankind and the internet.

“We intend to create virtual ‘outposts’ in major partner museums around the world,” says Mahlangu. “These outposts will allow visitors to these partner museums the chance to interact with scientists in real time in a way we simply could not conceive of a few years ago. It is anticipated that the laboratory and virtual infrastructure will be built within a year, expanding our ambitious tourism and smart province infrastructure programme.”

Berger added that negotiations had begun with the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom and the Smithsonian in Washington. “We have already donated casts of Australopithecus sediba to these three institutions, amongst others,” says Berger. “It has also just been confirmed that one of the virtual outposts will be hosted in the new Shanghai Natural History Museum due to open later this year.”

The excitement generated by the latest discovery is also shared by the National Department of Arts and Culture. The Department has hailed it as an important addition to the drive to educate South Africans, especially the youth, about their history and heritage.

Paul Mashatile, South African Minister of Arts and Culture, says: “Maropeng means the place of origin. South Africans are prepared to share this information about our history and heritage with the rest of the world, with the help of modern technology. This is history in the making, with the added dimension of being relayed live to the world as it is made.”

Berger concludes: “It’s breath-taking to actually ‘see the future’ using technology. It unlocks the potential for us to make ambitious plans to share this find with other scientists and with the public. Such an endeavour is quite literally changing the way we conduct science, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to share this magnificent discovery with the world. But, truthfully, my colleagues and I just can’t wait to get our hands on the fossils in that rock!”

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