A Multi-Disciplinary Perspective on the Age of Australopithecus in Southern Africa

  • Andy I. R. HerriesEmail author
  • Robyn Pickering
  • Justin W. Adams
  • Darren Curnoe
  • Ginette Warr
  • Alf G. Latham
  • John Shaw
Part of the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology book series (VERT)


This paper presents a review of, and new data concerning, the age of Australopithecus in southern Africa. Current dating suggests that Makapansgat Limeworks is the oldest hominin deposit in southern Africa, with Australopithecus africanus dating to between 3.0 and 2.6 Ma. The Taung Child A. africanus fossil from Taung is most likely penecontemporary with the Makapansgat material between 3.0 and 2.6 Ma. A. africanus from Sterkfontein Member 4 is estimated to date to between 2.6 and 2.0 Ma, with the Sts 5 specimen dating to around 2.0 Ma. The A. africanus deposits from Gladysvale are most likely contemporaneous with the Sterkfontein group with an age between 2.4 and 2.0 Ma. The potential second species of Australopithecus, StW 573 from the Silberberg Grotto at Sterkfontein, is most likely dated to between 2.6 and 2.2 Ma. As such, StW 573 is contemporary with A. africanus fossils from Member 4 and suggest that two contemporary Australopithecus species occurred at Sterkfontein between ~2.6 and 2.0 Ma. Based on the presence of Equus the A. africanus fossils from Jacovec Cavern also likely date to <2.4 Ma. The new Australopithecus sediba-bearing deposits of Malapa date to 1.98 Ma and suggests that three different species of Australopithecus occur in South Africa between 2.3 and 1.9 Ma. Given these dates, A. africanus represents the oldest southern African hominin species being found in two temporally distinct groups of sites, Makapansgat/Taung and Sterkfontein/Gladysvale, and A. sediba is the youngest species at ~1.98 Ma. However, if StW 53 is also Australopithecus, as some have suggested, then this genus survives to younger than 1.8 Ma in South Africa. Australopithecus thus lasted for a significant period of time in southern Africa after the genus is last seen in eastern Africa (Australopithecus garhi at ~2.5 Ma). This new dating indicates that the South African Australopithecus fossils are younger than previously suggested and are contemporary with the earliest suggested representatives of Homo (~2.3 Ma) and Paranthropus (2.7–2.5 Ma) in eastern Africa.


Australopithecus africanus Australopithecus sediba Sterkfontein Makapansgat Gladysvale  Taung  Magnetostratigraphy Electron spin resonance Uranium-lead dating 



AIRH would like to thank the organisers of the 4th Annual Stony Brook Human Evolution Symposium (particularly Richard Leakey, Kaye Reed, and John Fleagle) for inviting him to attend that symposium and workshop and asking him to present this paper. Thank you to Ron Clarke, Kathy Kuman, Kevin Kuykendall, Lee Berger, Brian Kuhn, and Rainer Grün, for discussions on this topic and for allowing AIRH to work at the various sites over the years. A particular thank you goes to the late Tim Partridge for inviting me to work at Sterkfontein and for some very fun nights out and interesting discussions on the South African hominin sites over the years. Funding for this research has been provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, UNSW Faculty of Medicine, and additionally supported by ARC Discovery Grant DP0877603 and ARC Future Fellowship Grant FT120100399. Additional funding to RP was provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. 20-113658).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andy I. R. Herries
    • 1
    Email author
  • Robyn Pickering
    • 2
  • Justin W. Adams
    • 3
  • Darren Curnoe
    • 4
  • Ginette Warr
    • 5
  • Alf G. Latham
    • 5
  • John Shaw
    • 5
  1. 1.Australian Archaeomagnetism Laboratory, Archaeology Program, School of Historical and European Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social SciencesLa Trobe UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.School of Earth SciencesUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Anatomy and Developmental BiologyMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia
  4. 4.School of Biological, Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of New South WalesKensingtonAustralia
  5. 5.School of Archaeology, Classics and EgyptologyUniversity of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK

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