The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Potential soft organic tissue preserved in association with the Australopithecus sediba fossils from Malapa cave site, South Africa


Institute for Human Evolution, School of GeoSciences, the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Thursday 3:15-3:30, Ballroom C Add to calendar

The near complete Plio-Pleistocene aged Australopithecus sediba hominin specimens from the Malapa site, South Africa were analysed to determine whether soft tissue in the form of fossilised skin may have been preserved. The taphonomic condition of the fossils suggests rapid burial, lack of predation, but some insect damage, making the preservation environment at Malapa exceptional. Any soft tissue found with the hominins, represented by MH1 (Malapa Hominid 1) and MH2 (Malapa Hominid 2) would be of some considerable value, although such preservation is at present unrecognized in the early hominin record.

A multidisciplinary approach that combined morphological techniques (optical coherence tomography, three-dimensional laser scans, micro-CT scans and light microscopy) in association with molecular imaging (Raman spectroscopy and Fourier transform infrared) investigated whether original organics may be recovered. Two primary specimens were analysed – a cranium sample from MH1 and mandible specimen from MH2. The examination included an analysis of soft tissue decomposition potential to determine whether the depositional environment may have facilitated soft tissue preservation. Overall the study produced a provocative body of evidence that the specimens were indeed organic in origin. The significance of such a discovery could provide insight into our understanding of ancient hominin behaviour, biological pathways and taphonomic processes.

Support for this research was provided by the African Origins Platform of the Department of Science and Technology (South Africa), the National Geographic Society, the Gauteng Provincial Government, the National Research Foundation (South Africa), the University of the Witwatersrand and numerous other donors.

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