StatCounter

Thursday, November 1, 2018

After more than 20 years in the hands of one researcher, the nearly complete "Little Foot" hominin skeleton from South Africa will finally be open to other scientists at the end of November

Ron Clarke and skull of "Little Foot"/Wits - Wikimedia Commons
In 1994, Ron Clarke, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, was looking through some museum boxes filled with fossil specimens from the Sterkfontein caves, located about 40 kilometers northwest of the city. Beginning in the 1930s, a number of hominin fossils had been found there, mostly australopithecines, in what South Africans call the Cradle of Humankind.

Clarke quickly realized that four of the fossils, all small toe bones, had been misidentified as belonging to monkeys. They actually belonged to an early hominin, most likely another australopithecine. It quickly became known as "Little Foot."

Over the following years, Clarke, together with his collaborators Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi, searched the cave grotto from which the toes had come, trying to find more fossils. They eventually came across an almost complete hominin skeleton, encased in breccia. Under the official direction of the late Philip Tobias, the legendary Wits paleoanthropologist, Clarke and his colleagues began the slow task of extricating Little Foot's very fragile bones. It would take them nearly 20 years; the skeleton was finally put on brief public display last year.

Over this entire time, as he and his colleagues dug it out of the cave, Clarke had pretty much exclusive access to Little Foot, although he has so far published only very limited descriptions of the fossils. At the end of this month, however, Little Foot will become open access, or as the Wits fossil curator refers to it, "open collaboration." In other words, other teams will be able to study the skeleton and publish their own papers about it. Indeed, one research group, led by Wits paleoanthropologist Lee Berger--leader of the Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi teams in South Africa--has already had access to the skeleton earlier this year, and is expected to publish its results sometime after the open access date of November 28.

At this point I have to pause for a back story that provides important context, that of a long rivalry between Ron Clarke and Lee Berger well known to human evolution experts (even if they might not be aware of all the details.) When it came time for Tobias to retire in the mid 1990s, Clarke and Berger became the main contenders to replace him. During a visit to Wits in 2011 to profile Berger for Science magazine, I interviewed Tobias in his office and he told me the story.

Lee Berger and the cranium of Au. sediba


Tobias told me that the search committee could not decide between Berger and Clarke--individuals with very different skill sets--and so asked him for his opinion. Despite having earlier asked to be kept out of the process, Tobias told me, he agreed to do it. He made up a list of pluses and minuses for both men, and it was pretty close, Tobias said. But on balance Berger, who had done his PhD with Tobias, had a small edge, mainly because he was young, very enthusiastic, personable, and good at raising money; Clarke, very well respected and older than Berger, was a more experienced scientist, Tobias said, but less able to publicly represent paleoanthropology at Wits. (I think that anyone who has seen Berger give a public talk would see what Tobias saw; I was present when he talked to some middle school students in Johannesburg and it was quite amazing to see how brilliantly he conveyed his own enthusiasm for the science.)

But later, Tobias said, he soured on Berger, after he became convinced that the younger man had tried to steal credit for the discovery of Little Foot from Ron Clarke. Tobias told this story to many others, and before long, pretty much the entire biological anthropology community was convinced this was true. However, during my 2011 visit, I spent a lot of time in the Wits archives researching the question, as well as talking to both Berger and Clarke and many others about it. I continued this research for weeks after my return home. Most of my findings ended up on the cutting room floor, because Science thought it was inside baseball. But the bottom line was that the accusations were not true, as the university itself had found during its own, earlier investigation. I assume, however, that Tobias went to his grave still believing them.

That brings us back to the present. Berger had long argued, correctly I think, that the very long period during which Clarke had exclusive access to Little Foot was bad for science, especially after publication of the discovery of Au. sediba in 2010. Although the exact dating of Little Foot has been a matter of fierce controversy, Berger thinks they are relatively close to being contemporaneous. That means that a comparative study of Little Foot, Au. sediba, and other hominin fossils could help to illuminate a key period in human evolution, assuming that the South African hominins were not an evolutionary side show as some have argued. I've talked to many scientists who agree with Berger that it is long past time for Little Foot to be fully published and for others to be allowed to study it.

That is now happening. In a Skype interview earlier this year with Bernhard Zipfel, Wits' curator of fossils, and Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits' deputy vice-chancellor, the two men gave me the details of the open access plan. Vilakazi pointed out that Wits had an obligation under South Africa's heritage laws to make Little Foot available for study, but that policies were fairly loose concerning how long the discoverer of a fossil could have exclusive access. Zipfel said that normally a researcher would have seven years after a fossil was out of the ground, but that the long time it took to extricate Little Foot justified giving Clarke some extra time.

During the conversation, Zipfel said that he preferred the term "open collaboration" to "open access," because the university hoped to foster collaborative studies between different scientists--even between Clarke and Berger, although that does not seem likely to happen. Nevertheless, early this year, Berger's team, after submitting a research application, was given access to Little Foot, which in November 2017 had been moved from Clarke's lab at Sterkfontein to a vault at Wits in Johannesburg (more on that in a moment.)

Berger is understandably reluctant to discuss the situation, especially as his own study of Little Foot will not be published until sometime after the November 28 date and thus he is not free to talk about the results before then. And, according to Zipfel, beginning in 2016 the university had to negotiate a compromise between what Berger wanted--immediate access to Little Foot at that time--and what Clarke wanted, no access at all until he had published his own analyses and descriptions. The early access by Berger's team, but delay in publication, was the compromise arrived at by the university officials in consultation with outside experts.

But in a lengthy email to me relating his views on the process, Clarke made clear that the way it was handled had left a bitter taste in his mouth. Clarke said that Little Foot had been removed from Sterkfontein while he was giving some lectures in China, and that he was informed of this while he was there. (Zipfel confirms this account, adding that neither Clarke nor Berger knew the skeleton had been spirited back to Johannesburg until after it was done.)

Clarke also defended the long time it took him and his colleagues to get Little Foot out of the breccia, which had to be done with air scribes, needles driven by compressed air, to avoid breaking the fragile fossils. Clarke said that Berger's application to study Little Foot, in 2016, was "highly inappropriate" and that this should not have been allowed until after his own publications were in press. (Clarke told me that he expected those papers to be published by November 30.)

I've given this background because I think it is important to understanding how we have finally arrived at what most scientists will surely see as good news: Little Foot will be fully published at long last, and other researchers will be able to study it and draw their own conclusions. Science, and all of humanity, can only benefit.

Update Nov 8: Since this was published, some have pointed out to me that Ron Clarke did not use air scribes exclusively to extricate Little Foot from the breccia, but that he and his colleagues used hammers at least some of the time. This is illustrated in a YouTube video about the skeleton, and I recall seeing hammers used at least briefly during my visit in 2011. This story will be updated as it develops.