The Skull: a little history of Little Foot

The skull is probably the most import bone in our body; after all it protects the brain which both motivates and moves us. There wouldn’t be much going on without it. Essentially, it is beautifully designed: smooth, perfectly shaped to fit and protect, and it formulates our appearance through the structure of facial bones. Here are a few key facts about our very valuable, and vulnerable, brain casing:

Looking at structure

 The adult human skull is comprised of twenty-two bones which are divided into two parts: the neurocranium and the viscerocranium.

  • The neurocranium is a protective shell surrounding the brain and brain stem.
  • The viscerocranium (or facial skeleton) is formed by the bones supporting and protecting the face.
  • The cranium has a total of eight bones while the facial bones have a total of 14 bones.
  • The skull supports and protects the head’s soft tissues, with the mandible as the only bone that separates from other parts of the skull.
  • The biggest hole in the skull is found in the area of the vertebral column that joins the skull’s base. It is called the foramen magnum.

A skull fracture

Depending on the level of severity, skull fractures can heal themselves and may not be as painful as they seem. But more serious fractures will definitely require surgical intervention.

  • Depressed:This type of fracture makes the part of the skull look sunken.
  • Linear: A break in the skull bone is noted but the bone has not moved.
  • Diastatic:The fracture takes place along one of the sutures of the skull.
  • Basilar:It is characterized by a break in one of the bones near the base of the skull. Such a type of fracture requires immediate medical attention.

 

Little Foot – a skull revealing life

 Little Foot, at 3.5 million years old, is one of the oldest skeletons of our probable ancestors ever found. Little Foot is a hominid – so called because she stood upright and walked on two legs. How do we know this? Because Little Foot had a foramen magnum just like us, fitted into the base of the skull and not the back of the skull like other primates.

Little Foot was discovered in the Sterkfontein Caves, near Johannesburg, by Professor Ron Clarke, in 1994. Three years later he found the location of the rest of the skeleton and the painstaking  work began on excavating the specimen. Little Foot was finally unveiled to the public in 2018.

Recently, scientists have managed to peer into Little Foot’s skull – a fascinating country indeed. And what they found wasn’t exactly good news – at least not for Little Foot. It seems that life for Little Foot was a struggle, a constant search for food. She experienced two malnutrition events as a child, and then possibly had to adapt to a sudden change of diet.

Scientists know this because of the high resolution imaging that allowed them to peer into the skull without using hammers and chisels to break it open. An international team of scientists imaged the skull using synchrotron X-ray microcomputed tomography, provided by the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source.

They were able to look at the finest details of the craniodental anatomy of the ancient skull.

Microstructures observed in the teeth enamel indicate that this little person suffered through two clear periods of dietary stress or illness when she was a child. Despite the age of the skull, the smallest structures were found to be well preserved and exciting in detail. Unusual wear on her front teeth, as opposed to her molars, suggest that Little Foot might have been forced to change her diet.

What the synchrotron has revealed could one day help in our understanding of where Little Foot sits in the human family tree. But further imaging of the skeleton may reveal to which exact species she may truly belong. She may be a direct ancestor, or maybe not. She has been tentatively identified as Australopithecus Prometheus.

While we all might hope that our precious, long-in-evolution hardhat won’t end up as a display on a countertop – and specifically that it will not reveal we ate too many cream buns – we can be assured that taking care of all our bones is vital to preserving their strength and service years.

 Love your bones! Especially that top rider – after all, it’s your treasure chest of knowledge, experience and capability. Keep it intact in every way!

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

 

Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za

 

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