First Studies of Fossil of new Human Ancestor Take Place at the European Synchrotron

April 8, 2010

GRENOBLE, France, April 8, 2010 /PRNewswire/ — – Despite its Recent
Discovery, one of the Best-Preserved Hominid Fossils has Already Been
Analysed with Synchrotron Light

Prof. Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)
has discovered a new species of early human ancestor in one of the
best-preserved skeletons of an hominid, dated around 1.9 million years old,
in the Cradle of Humankind. This discovery was published on 9 April in

The fossil’s extraordinary state of preservation encouraged scientists to
exploit a non-destructive tool called X-ray synchrotron microtomography,
which has revolutionised palaeontology and 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

The use of X-ray synchrotron microtomography for studying fossils has
been developed at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in
Grenoble, France, by Paul Tafforeau. The ESRF synchrotron light enables
scientists to 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 of conventional X-ray machines.

Prof. Lee Berger teamed up with Paul Tafforeau and took the fossil 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 body, were also analysed.

They also analysed in detail the teeth of the fossil. Studying their
internal growth lines and structure to the daily level could provide the age
at death of the individual. By comparing his real age and his developmental
level, scientists would gain insights about his life history 1.9 million
years ago.

Prof. Lee Berger pushed the investigation further by using the ESRF to
look at possible remnants of soft parts of the body that normally do not
fossilise, such as brain tissue. He did not carve out entirely the stone
matrix from the skull, a procedure carried out for all other hominid skulls
in the past to prepare for examination. The X-rays delved deep into the rock
to find any fossilised traces of what had been there 1.9 million years ago.

The analysis of the data has only just started, but the preliminary
visualisation of the complete skull already available shows fossilised insect
eggs whose larvae could have fed on the flesh of the hominid after death.
Researchers also noticed an extended low density area that could point
towards a remnant of the brain after its bacterial decay.

It is only the second time ever that a complete skull of a hominid is
examined using powerful synchrotron radiation. This kind of analysis is
currently only possible at the ESRF.

Wits University is the curator of the fossils which belong to the people
of South Africa.

    More resources from 1200 GMT on 12th April:



Wits University: S.PATEL, +27-11-717-1019, Shirona.Patel@wits.ac.za

ESRF: M.CAPELLAS, +33-4-7688-2663, capellas@esrf.fr

SOURCE European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

Source: newswire

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