By EDDIE WRENN
PUBLISHED: 03:39 EST, 13 July 2012 | UPDATED: 07:57 EST, 13 July 2012
For two million years the rock lay undisturbed, containing a hidden secret and perhaps one of the most important archeological finds ever.
For another few years, the rock lay undisturbed in a laboratory, until a technician noticed a tooth sticking out of the back.
Opening it up, the South African scientists discovered what they call the most complete skeleton yet of an ancient relative of man, hidden in the rock which was first excavated from an archaeological site three years ago.
University of Witwatersrand palaeontologist Lee Berger said the remains of the juvenile hominid skeleton, of the ‘Australopithecus sediba’ species, constitute the ‘most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered.’
Lost a tooth – but found for science: The remains of a juvenile hominid skeleton, of the new Australopithecus (southern ape) sediba species, are the ‘most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered’
Unassuming: Part of the rock which lay on the shelf for three years before the startling discovery
He said: ‘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.’
The remains are thought to be around two million years old, and add a few years for the time that the three-foot-wide rock lay unnoticed in the laboratory.
The technician, Justin Mukanka, said: ‘I was lifting the block up, I just realized that there is a tooth.’
It was then scanned to reveal significant parts of an A. sediba skeleton, dubbed Karabo, whose other other parts were first discovered in 2009.
The skeletal remains: Professor Lee Burger poses with the highly intact remains of ‘Karabo,’ the young speciman of Australopithecus sebida
Parts of three other skeletons were discovered in 2008 in the world-famous Cradle of Humankind site north of Johannesburg.
It is not certain whether the species, which had long arms, a small brain and a thumb possibly used for precision gripping, was a direct ancestor of humans’ genus, Homo, or simply a close relative.
‘It appears that we now have some of the most critical and complete remains of the skeleton,’ said Berger.
The skeleton, which has been dubbed Karabo, would have been aged between nine and 13 years when the upright-walking tree climber died.
Remains of four A. sediba skeletons have been discovered in South Africa’s Malapa cave, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Johannesburg, since 2008. The individuals are believed to have fallen into a pit in the cave and died.
The sediba fossils are arguably the most complete remains of any hominids found and are possibly one of the most significant palaeoanthropological discoveries in recent time.
The Cradle of Humankind, now a World Heritage Site, is the oldest continuous palaeontological dig in the world.
The university also announced it would open up the process of exploring and uncovering fossil remains to the public and stream it online in real time.
A special laboratory studio will be built at the Cradle of Humankind.
‘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,’ said Berger.
The lab and the virtual infrastructure are expected to be built within a year, according to Qedani Mahlangu, a regional minister of economic development.
The university is in talks with Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in China, Britain’s Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian in the United States to set up virtual outposts for the live science project.