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The adventures of Australopithecus sediba continue, with a trip to the United States. Gifts were given to the Smithsonian in the spirit of trust and partnership between it and Wits University.
THE two-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba fossils have just taken their first trip to Washington DC. Or rather, replicas of the fossils have gone to the US.

Professor Lee Berger with the cranium of Australopithecus sedibaProfessor Lee Berger with the cranium of Australopithecus sedibaProfessor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand donated fossil casts to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History on Thursday, 10 February.
“The gift represents a free exchange of scientific and cultural information in a field generally known for its lack of free exchange of information,” said Berger in a release before travelling to Washington.

Berger, a palaeoanthropologist from the Institute for Human Evolution at Wits, and his team discovered the fossils in 2008 at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, 40 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg. The find turned into a treasure trove when the bones were revealed to be a new species of hominid.

It was christened Australopithecus sediba, as "sediba" means natural spring, fountain or wellspring in Sotho. This was considered an appropriate name for a species that scientists believed was the point from which the genus Homo (of which humans are part) arose.

“They are the two most complete skeletons of hominids ever found and are therefore considered one of the most important discoveries in the search for human origins in Africa,” said Wits spokesperson Vivienne Rowland.

Uranium-lead, faunal and palaeomagnetic dating techniques were used to ascertain the age of the rocks encasing the bones, which go back 1,95- and 1,78 million years. It took a team of more than 60 scientists, numerous students and fossil preparators more than a year-and-a-half to extract the bones from the rock.

The skeletons are of an adolescent male, named Karabo by South African children invited to create an identity for him, and of a mature female. They were uncovered close to each other in an eroded cave believed to have been an underground lake.

Professor Lee Berger with some of the partial remains of Australopithecus sedibaProfessor Lee Berger with some of the partial remains of Australopithecus sedibaBerger handed over casts of Karabo and the female to the director of the Smithsonian’s human origins programme, Dr Rick Potts. The gift included two complete copies for public display and another two for research purposes.
The original fossils are kept in a vault at Wits.

“The discovery of Australopithecus sediba is a powerful reminder of how much remains to be unearthed about the ancestry of humans,” said Potts in anticipation of receiving the casts. “The generous donation of the replicas significantly widens the opportunity for the public and researchers to explore these spectacular finds.”

In addition to the casts, Berger handed over a separate box of unpublished fossil specimens which will be published during this year. It was intended to serve as a display of a spirit of trust and partnership between the two institutions.

Berger followed the handing over ceremony with a lecture about the fossils, and will be wrapping up his tour to the United States by addressing members of the departments of sociology and anthropology and the College of Liberal arts And Social Sciences at Georgia Southern University on 12 February. The talk is entitled “From Georgia Southern to Africa: the pathway to the discovery of the most complete early humans in history”.

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