Watching the infinitely small


First histological observations of Little Foot’s skull

Discovered in the Silberberg Cave (Sterkfontein), South Africa, “Little Foot” is the most complete skeleton of Australopithecus ever found. It took Professor Ron Clarke’s team (University of the Witwatersrand) twenty years to free it from its rocky gangue, 3.67 million years after its death. Today, a team of South African, French and British researchers is publishing their latest work on the Little Foot’s skull in eLife.

The international team transported this precious relic from Africa to the UK in 2019 to scan its interior at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Didcot. Synchrotron technology allows objects to be scanned at very high resolution (micron level). This ‘giant microscope’ works on the principles of the high-energy acceleration of elementary particles. For the first time, details of Little Foot’s anatomy, previously invisible to the naked eye, have been revealed. In particular, micro-vessels of the mandibular bone were reconstructed in 3D, giving an insight into the bone remodeling processes during Little Foot’s life. The high-resolution images also revealed microscopic structures of dental tissue and skull bone.

These first ‘paleohistology’ results from an ancestor more than 3-million-year-old are particularly promising for a further study of this specimen and for the discipline in general. While these anatomical structures are usually observed on histological sections (which therefore involve destroying the fossil), the synchrotron allows access to ‘intimate’ details of our lineage members without damaging them. The hitherto unsuspected degree of preservation of the internal structures of Little Foot’s skull opens up unique perspectives for the study of this specimen.

Amélie Beaudet 

Lecturer in Human Origins
Department of Archaeology
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, United Kingdom

IFAS-Research grant recipient in 2021


Premières observations histologiques du crâne de « Little Foot »

Découvert dans la grotte de Silberberg (Sterkfontein), en Afrique du Sud, « Little Foot » est le squelette le plus complet d’Australopithecus jamais mis au jour. Vingt années ont été nécessaires à l’équipe du professeur Ron Clarke (université du Witwatersrand) pour le dégager de sa gangue rocheuse 3,67 millions d’années après sa mort. Aujourd’hui, une équipe de chercheurs et de chercheuses sud-africains, français et britanniques publie, dans eLife, leurs derniers travaux sur le crâne de « Little Foot ».

L’équipe internationale a transporté ce précieux vestige depuis l’Afrique jusqu’au Royaume-Uni en 2019 afin d’en scanner l’intérieur au synchrotron du Diamond Light Source, à Didcot. La technologie synchrotron permet de scanner des objets en très haute résolution (de l’ordre du micron). Ce « microscope géant » fonctionne sur les principes de l’accélération à haute énergie de particules élémentaires. Pour la première fois, des détails de l’anatomie de « Little Foot », invisibles à l’œil nu, ont pu être mis en évidence. En particulier, des micro-vaisseaux de l’os de la mandibule ont pu être reconstitués en 3D et donner un aperçu des processus de remodelage de l’os au cours de la vie de « Little Foot ». Les images à haute résolution ont aussi révélé des structures microscopiques des tissus dentaires et de l’os du crâne.

Ces premiers résultats de « paléohistologie » d’un ancêtre vieux de plus de 3 millions d’années sont particulièrement prometteurs pour la suite de l’étude de ce spécimen et pour la discipline en général. Alors que ces structures anatomiques sont habituellement observées sur des coupes histologiques (qui impliquent donc de détruire le fossile), le synchrotron permet d’accéder à des détails « intimes » des membres de notre lignée sans les endommager. Le degré de préservation des structures internes du crâne de « Little Foot », insoupçonné jusqu’alors, ouvre des perspectives uniques pour l’étude de ce spécimen.

Amélie Beaudet 

Lecturer in Human Origins
Départment d’archéologie
Université de Cambridge

Allocataire de l’IFAS-Recherche en 2021

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