In 1994, bones from a nearly complete fossil skeleton were unearthed in the Sterkfontein cave system in South Africa.
The fossil was nicknamed "little foot" in 1995 after it was ascertained from the structure of four anklebones that the owner was able to walk upright. It was then categorised as Australopithecus, which loosely translates to Southern Ape.
It was actually way back in 1980 that the four anklebones were collected but went unnoticed between numerous other mammal bones. An initiative in 1992 by a chap named, Phillip Tobias, saw a large rock that seemed to contain an unusual accumulation of fossils was blown up in the cave. The fossils recovered were then handed to paleoanthropologist, Ronald J. Clarke, for assessment.
Two years later, Clarke identified several bones and fossil fragments that were unmistakably hominin while searching through museum boxes labelled 'Cercopithecoids'. It was then that he recognized four left foot bones (the talus, navicular, medial cuneiform and first metatarsal) that were most likely from Little Foot.
Then, in 1997 while working through separate fossil bags, Clarke found more foot bones from the same individual. These included a right fragment of the distal tibia that had been clearly sheared off from the rest of the bone. Shortly thereafter, Clarke sent two of his assistants, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe, to the Silberberg Grotto to search for matching pieces of the tibia that attached to this fragment. Within just two days in the lower part of the grotto, they found what they were looking for.
Speculation, based on the fact that both legs were anatomically correct, dictated that it was most likely a complete skeleton, embedded face-down in the limestone rock. As weeks turned into months, Clarke, Motsumi and Molefe painstakingly excavated with just a hammer and small chisel, first uncovering more foot bones and later the first remains of the upper body including an upper arm bone on 11 September 1998. Eventually, the skull and lower jaw were revealed too and the news was announced to the press.
In 1999, almost a year later, the left forearm and hand were discovered. Since then, the team have uncovered a relatively complete skeleton, including parts of the pelvis, ribs and vertebrae, a complete humerus and most of the lower limb bones.
Due to the bones being embedded in concrete-like rock, it took Clarke and his team two full decades to fully extricate, clean, and analyze the specimen, work that was finally completed in 2017.
Check out the video below for the introduction to Little Foot by Professor Ron Clarke.