In 1947 Dr Robert Broom and his assistant, John Robinson, made an amazing discovery – one of the most perfect fossilised pre-human skulls ever found! They were encouraged to explore the caves at Sterkfontein near Johannesburg because of earlier archaeological discoveries in the area. With the help of the site manager, George Barlow, they uncovered an almost perfect skull specimen embedded in rock. They had to use dynamite to get the skull out and it broke in two but luckily they were able to repair it.
Co-workers of Mr Broom nick-named the skull Mrs Ples. This came from Plesianthropus Transvaalensis meaning ‘near human from the Transvaal’. The nick-name just stuck!
Mrs Ples is around 2.05 million year old and is from the species Australopithecus africanus ‘southern ape of Africa’. As an early ancestor of modern humans, she would have walked upright and used her hands very much like we do. But her brain was smaller than ours and she probably wasn’t able to create tools. She was also much smaller than we are: discoveries have shown that Australopithecus africanus had an average height of 1.4m. Mrs Ples and her friends would have had incisor teeth that were smaller than ours and a flatter face. They probably used sticks and stones to gather their food.
The Sterkfontein caves and the area around them has been named the Cradle of Humankind because about 40% of the world’s hominid fossils were discovered there. Before Mrs Ples was found many palaeontologists didn’t believe that humankind could originate from Africa but thought their origins were in Asia or Europe. Mrs Ples changed all of that. Her discovery was ground-breaking because previously it was believed that the big brain of the homo species, to which we humans belong, evolved at the same time as the ability to walk upright. However, Mrs Ples’ skull was much smaller. This showed that the ability to walk upright came far earlier than the growth in brain size.
Although early research indicates that Mrs Ples was a female of the species, new scientific evidence suggests that she may actually be a Mr Ples!
Whichever sex Mrs Ples actually was, her discovery has shone a light on our global ancestry and the origins of humankind.
If you’re ever in the Gauteng region, then do make the effort to go to the Cradle of Humankind which is a World Heritage Site and discover this incredible world of ‘stones an bones’. The actual skull of Mrs Ples is kept at Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria.
Tell us: would you like to visit the Cradle of Humankind to find out more?