South Africa

The fossils of our early ancestors found in South Africa are a million years older than previously thought.

A study of hominin remains from the Australopithecus genus found at the Sterkfontein caves north of Johannesburg — including the famed Mrs Ples fossil — puts their ages at between 3.4 million and 3.6 million years, Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand said in a statement on Monday.

That would make them older than the Lucy fossil found in Ethiopia in 1979, which is 3.2 million years old.

The find puts South Africa back in contention as the site where humankind may have originated.

The Sterkfontein caves at the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site near Johannesburg have yielded more Australopithecus fossils than any other site in the world.

Among them was “Mrs Ples”, the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, which was found in South Africa in 1947.

“This important new dating work pushes the age of some of the most interesting fossils in human evolution research, and one of South Africa’s most iconic fossils, Mrs Ples, back a million years to a time when, in East Africa, we find other iconic early hominins like Lucy,” said Dominic Stratford, director of research at the caves and one of the authors of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

The Sterkfontein caves at the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site near Johannesburg have yielded more Australopithecus fossils than any other site in the world.

Among them was “Mrs. Ples”, the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, which was found in South Africa in 1947.

“This important new dating work pushes the age of some of the most interesting fossils in human evolution research, and one of South Africa’s most iconic fossils, Mrs Ples, back a million years to a time when, in East Africa, we find other iconic early hominins like Lucy,” said Dominic Stratford, director of research at the caves and one of the authors of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.