Palaeoanthropologist Prof. Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, has discovered a new species of early human ancestor in one of the best-preserved skeletons of an early hominid, dated around 1.9 million years old, in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site. This discovery was published on 9 April 2010 in Science, a leading international scientific journal.
The fossil's extraordinary state of preservation encouraged scientists to fully exploit a non-destructive tool called X-ray synchrotron microtomography, which has revolutionised palaeontology and even more palaeoanthropology in the last decade. Preliminary, not-yet-published results show the presence of what could be fossilised insect eggs and hints of a potential brain remnant of the hominid.
The use of X-ray synchrotron microtomography for studying fossils has been developed at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, by the paleoanthropologist Paul Tafforeau, an ESRF scientist. He originally started to use the synchrotron to study fossil primate teeth non-destructively, in addition to developing synchrotron imaging for palaeontology. The advantage of the powerful ESRF synchrotron is that it enables scientists to literally visualise the inside of a fossil block, sometimes up to the micron scale without breaking it open, with contrast, sensitivity and resolution far above those offered by conventional X-ray machines.
His wish to reach the highest levels of analysis possible with synchrotron microtomography techniques made it pertinent for Prof. Lee Berger to team up with Paul Tafforeau. Fossils of such historical and scientific value almost never travel. However, this 1.9 million year old fossil was carefully transported to the ESRF in February 2010 for an extensive two-week long investigation. In addition to the skull, many fragments of the skeleton, representing nearly forty percent of an entire
|Contact: Montserrat Capellas|
European Synchrotron Radiation Facility