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When the discovery of an exciting archeological find is announced, the person at the forefront is usually the paleontologist leading the dig. However, the credit of unearthing one of the most complete pre-human skeletons can be solely attributed to the sharp eyes of technician Justin Mukanka at South Africa's University of Witwatersrand.
Mr. Mukanka recently happened to lift a 3.3 foot wide rock that had lain on one of the laboratory shelves for three years, when he noticed what looked like a human tooth jutting out from it.
Sure enough, a CT (computed tomography) scan by paleontologist Lee Berger whose team had originally brought the rock in from Johannesburg's Malapa cave, revealed not only an almost complete human skull, but also, other critical parts of the body including what appears to be a complete femur, ribs and vertebrae.
Turns out that the new find that has been named Karabo (means answer in the local Tswana language) belongs to a species called Australopithecus sediba. Found alongside two other partial skeletons, an adult female and a juvenile male that were unearthed in 2009, Karabo lived on earth about 1.9 million years ago and is believed by some, to be the earliest known human ancestor.
The researchers revealed that the upright walking, tree-climber, was probably between 9-13 years old when he along with the other two members of his species, fell to their death in a pit inside the cave located in the fossil-rich Cradle of Humankind - the world's oldest continuous paleontological dig where some of the most important evidence of the evolution of the human species has been discovered.
Lee Berger's theory about the A.sediba fossils being related to the modern human is based on the strange combination of their human and primitive features. They had well-developed hands with human-like with short fingers and thumb, a very modern pelvis and a small but surprisingly advanced brain. However, the shape of their foot and ankle though fused, still seemed to resemble apes.
But experts like Donald Johanson, the founding director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University disagree. They think that since the species lived about 1.8-1.9 million years ago, around the same time as the Homo genus to which the modern humans (Homo Sapiens) belong, they could not be our ancestors. He believes that the resemblance to the modern human could be just a coincidence and the A.sediba may have been a completely different species - One that is now extinct.
While the two sides may never agree on this issue, the one thing neither are arguing about is how special Karabo is - So much so, that the laboratory is planning to allow the public to participate in person or via a live internet stream, the extraction of its fossils from the rock. They are currently collaborating with the National Geographic Society to build a special laboratory inside the Maropeng Visitor Centre, so that not only Karabo, but also future finds, can be unveiled in the same manner.
Resources: foxnews.com, livescience.com, phys.org, dailymail.co.uk