A PRICELESS fossil of the 3.67-million -year-old ‘Little Foot’ skull was flown from South Africa to a lab near Didcot.

With the help of an X-ray, scientists at the British research facility Diamond Light Source, were able to see some microscopic details in the ancient remains that could help unravel key clues to the origins of modern humans.

The X-ray work from June 2019 is highlighted in a new paper in e-life published this week which reveals new information about evolution and human origins.

The scientists were able to observe and describe the vascular canals that are enclosed in the compact bone of the lower jaw.

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These structures have the potential to reveal a lot about the biomechanics of eating in this individual and its species, but also more broadly about how bone was remodelled in ‘Little Foot’.

The branching pattern of these canals indicates some remodelling took place, this could have been in response to changes in diet or a sign that Little Foot died as an older individual.

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Dr Amélie Beaudet recalled her excitement of revealing the intimate details of Little Foots life. Dr Beaudet explained that after examining the enamel it indicated Little Foot suffered two clear periods of dietary stress or illness when she was a child.

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The team also observed tiny channels, smaller than a 1mm in the braincase that are possibly involved in brain thermoregulation, which helps the brain cool down.

Brain size increased dramatically throughout human evolution, and, because the brain is very sensitive to temperature change, understanding how temperature regulation evolves is of prime interest to scientists.

Traditionally these observations would not have been possible without cutting the fossil into very thin slices.

These new discoveries from the fossil discovered in the Sterkfontein Caves, northwest of Johannesburg, by Professor Ron Clarke in 1994, would not have been possible without Diamond’s new technology.

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Palaeoanthropologist Prof Dominic Stratford, said: “We think there will also be a hugely significant evolutionary aspect – as studying this fossil in this much detail will help us understand which species she evolved from and how she differs from others found at a similar time in Africa. This is just our first paper so watch this space. Funding permitting, we hope to be able to bring other parts of ‘Little Foot’ to Diamond.”

He added: “This research was about bringing ‘the best-preserved Australopithecus skull to the ‘best of the best’ synchrotron facility for our purposes.

“Traditionally, hominins have been analysed by measuring and describing by the exterior shapes of their fossilised bones to assess how these differ between species.

"Synchrotron development and microCT resources means that we are now able to virtually observe structures inside the fossils, which hold a wealth of information. More recently, technology has developed to such an extent that we can now virtually explore minute histological structures in three dimensions, opening new avenues for our research.”

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