On April 18, 1947, the Mrs. Ples fossil saw the light of day for the first time in millions of years. The skull, which is the most complete skull of Australopithecus africanus ever found, was excavated in South Africa by scientist Robert Broom. Broom made the discovery at the now famous cave site Sterkfontein. Remembering the discovery of Mrs. Ples (also known as STS 5) Broom later said that of all the sights he had seen in his life, “this was the most thrilling.” Here are a couple of fun facts about the fossil, which dates back to about 2.5 million years ago, and had a brain size of about 485 cc.
- Her nickname is grounded in history. Mrs. Ples’ nickname was derived from her original scientific name, Plesianthropus transvaalensis, meaning near-man from the Transvaal.
- Dynamite broke her slightly. As complete as she is, Mrs. Ples was actually broken into two pieces during the excavation. Broom was using dynamite to try to expose remains from their surrounding, cement-like rock.
- She might not be a Mrs. The question of whether she is a Mrs. or a Mr. has been under debate, an identity crisis, as the Smithsonian magazine calls it.
- Her discovery site is kind of a big deal. Sterkfontein is now a world heritage site (and one that is still yielding amazing discoveries at that– including fossils that have recently been in the news like Little foot). Broom’s statue, which shows him contemplating Mrs. Ples, guards the entrance to the caves.
In one of his texts on the history of paleoanthropology, Ian Tattersall wrote that he considers Robert Broom “one of the most remarkable characters in the history of paleoanthropology.” After just recently becoming interested in the history of the Australopithecines, I must say I agree. After being trained as a doctor and becoming well known for studying the origins of mammals, Broom came to study hominin fossils late in his life. He was almost sixty years old in 1925 when Dart announced the Taung child, peaking his interest.
For further information on Mrs. Ples, check out her biography through the Smithsonian Human Origin’s site, and for more information on Broom, here’s a little about him from South African History Online. If I weren’t currently writing final papers for the semester, I’d talk more about Broom, Australopithecus, and the incredible Sterkfontein caves, but hopefully soon! In the meantime, go out and celebrate this incredible fossil discovery!