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- Wits Communications

Wits scientists share humanity’s common heritage with Heads of State during 10th BRICS Summit.

Wits University’s world renowned hominin discoveries – Homo naledi, Little Foot, and Australopithecus sediba’s Karabo – were for the first time displayed together at Maropeng, the official visitor centre for The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, during the 10th BRICS Summit’ open session on Thursday.

The aim was to showcase the remarkable discoveries of humankind’s hominin ancestors made by Wits palaeoscientists in South Africa via video link to President Cyril Ramaphosa and his fellow BRICS leaders: Brazilian President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Via a special livestream from Maropeng to the Sandton Convention Centre, the BRICS leaders and delegates were introduced to the Cradle of Humankind, the world's richest hominin site that is home to around 40% of the world's human ancestor fossils.

Ramaphosa told his counterparts from Brazil, Russia, India and China before the live crossing that the site symbolises the unity of the people of the world.

“It also profiles our continent of Africa as the birthplace of the human species, and indeed more than 200 million years ago, our continents were all joined in the single continent, Laurasia. We have differences in language, culture and beliefs but we are one species bound together by a single ancient history,” Ramaphosa told delegates before crossing live to Maropeng where Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor and a Wits delegation led by the University’s acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tawana Kupe, and the Director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences at Wits, Professor Bruce Rubidge, unveiled the fossils.

Pandor told the Heads of State that the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site is widely recognised as the place from which all of humankind originates.

“Our countries all have sites that connect our ancient history. Twelve years prior to the listing of this, the important Peking Man site was listed in the People’s Republic of China. Earlier this year, research was published of the discovery of stone tools, dating back to 385 000 years ago in India."

“In Russia, the Denisova hominin discovery is of immense palaeontological importance. Brazil and South Africa share very important ancient reptile fossil species, elucidating the distant ancestry of mammals, which demonstrates that our continents were once linked in the ancient continent Gondwana.”

"All our countries have sites that connect us to our ancient history," she said.

Homo naledi

In 2013 Professor Lee Berger and the Rising Star Expedition from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits discovered the first of more than 1 550 numbered fossil elements – the single largest fossil hominin find yet made on the continent of Africa - in a cave known as Rising Star in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Unveiled to the world in 2015 at Maropeng, Homo naledi is another example of the exceptional research conducted at Wits University in search for human origins - one that celebrates all humankind's common origins on the continent of Africa.

Little "Miss Perfect" Foot

After 20 years of painstaking excavation and preparation, Professor Ron Clarke from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits introduced the most complete Australopithecus fossil ever found to the world in 2017. Little Foot, the country’s oldest, virtually complete fossil human ancestor was given the nickname of “Little Foot” by South Africa's most renowned scientist, Professor Phillip Tobias, based on Clarke’s initial discovery of four small footbones.

This is the first time that Little Foot has been on public display after 20 years of painstaking excavation, cleaning and reconstruction by Clarke and his team at the Sterkfontein Caves. The 3.67 million year old fossil of Australopithecus prometheus is undoubtly the most complete and significant South African hominid find since Raymond Dart's discovery of the skull of the Taung child in 1924, says Clarke.

"She may not be perfect in formed body, with some bones missing, but Little Foot is our great-great aunt many times removed and she is perfect to me," Clarke told the BRICS leaders.

Australopithecus sediba's child Karabo

The site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site came to the world’s attention in 2008 when Wits Professor Lee Berger’s young son Matthew discovered the first pieces of what would become one of the most complete early human skeleton ever discovered, part of a juvenile skeleton that was named ‘Karabo’ ("The Answer" in seSotho), and the type specimen of a new species of hominin – Australopithecus sediba - named by Berger’s team in 2010.

The discovery by Berger, a palaeoanthropologist, and his team from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits, launched one of the largest and most intensive research programmes ever conducted in palaeoanthropology involving over 100 scientists from around the world, which has recovered hundreds of remains of at least four other skeletons.

Experience lab

Professor Tawana Kupe, acting Vice-Chancellor of Wits, introduced Karabo as well as the new Experience Lab at Maropeng.

The lab is a partnership between the University and the Gauteng Provincial Government and designed to educate and entertain children. Looking in the glass laboratory, visitors can see a Wits scientist at work preparing fossils discovered by Wits scientists.

Apart from being a growing tourism hub, the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site is also an extremely important site for ongoing research, Kupe said.