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Master of Scaremonies
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'Little Foot' too young to be our ancestor

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 08/12/2006

The human family tree will have to be redrawn in the wake of a discovery that an apeman skeleton is not as old as originally thought, suggesting it may not be a direct ancestor of humankind.

Known as "Little Foot" and found in 1997 in a cave in South Africa, the skeleton was remarkably complete and thought to be between two million and four million years old, suggesting this kind of hominid could have paved the way for the first tool makers. With its combination of human and ape-like features, scientists hoped that the well-preserved hands and feet of Little Foot would shed light on when early hominids began using tools and walking upright.

But now the apeman has been dated precisely to 2.2 million years old by scientists at the Universities of Leeds and Liverpool, making it about 400,000 years too young to be a part of man's family tree. The new findings in the journal Science reveal that the ape-like creature - part of the Australophithecus africanus family - may not be the immediate ancestor of human beings as some experts thought: Little Foot lived after the arrival of the stone tool makers, **** habilis, raising the possibility that this family was more of a side branch of the human evolutionary tree, merely a distant cousin.

Dr Alfred Latham, from the Liverpool's School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology said: "Little Foot is known to have stood on two feet, approximately 130cm tall [4ft] and having a brain not much larger than a modern chimpanzee. "The remains were preserved between the stalagmite layers and it is these layers that have helped our team to date the skeleton."

To work out his age, Dr Jo Walker and Dr Bob Cliff at Leeds, with Dr Latham, used uranium-lead dating, working on extracts of stalagmite deposits from immediately above and below the body. The stalagmite layers contain traces of radioactive uranium, which eventually decays to form lead. The team measured the amount of uranium and lead in the stalagmite layers to form an accurate date.

Dr Latham said: "Liverpool was the first to obtain rock samples from the cave in 1997 when the skeleton was found. At that point the team dated the layers at 3.3 million years old using magnetic analysis and evidence from animal remains. "Further investigation by an American team subsequently dated it at 4.29 million years old, which was considered controversial." Another technique was needed to place the species within the evolutionary tree. "Uranium-lead analysis - an established technique in geology - has never been used on an archaeological site of this kind before, but it has proved highly successful."
 
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