14 January 2021: An introduction to Mrs Ples

Mrs Ples is the oldest thing in my house. Although, to be honest she’s just a representation of the original Mrs Ples. And, to be even more honest, my Mrs Ples is only one-third the size of the original.

Mrs Ples has more than one name, and her history is, to say the least, turbulent.

But first, the big reveal. Mrs Ples is the oldest complete skull we have of Australopithecus africanus, a member of the great apes that includes us – the hominims. I bought the replica that now rests proudly on my bookshelf at the Cradle of Humankind in August 2018.

I think she’s beautiful.

And yes, it’s reasonably likely that Mrs Ples is not Mr Ples, although the issue is not yet settled. When the original fleshy envelope holding her passed away, she was middle-aged, not bad going for someone from her time. Standing in her socks she was about the same height as a chimpanzee, and her brain was about the same size as a chimp’s as well.

But, unlike a chimp, she was bipedal. She proudly walked on two legs, occasionally retreating to a tree if something bigger than a hedgehog threatened her.

In her modern incarnation, she entered the world with a bang. Literally. The rock matrix enclosing her skull was blown apart by dynamite. It took a lot of work to get all the pieces together again.

At first, she was Plesianthropus transvaalensis; later, scientists discovered she was actually related to the Taung child, the first early hominin ever found in Africa, and already given the binomen Australopithecus africanus. So she lost her first official title and took up another; in honour of that first name, however, she has since been called Mrs Ples.

Her other name is her catalogue number, in this case STS 5, which indicates the fossil was found at Sterkfontein.

Despite being blown up, misnamed and constantly man-handled by grubby palaeoanthropologists, she is regarded with wonder by those in the know. In fact, when South Africa’s free-to-air broadcasting company aired a show in 2004 called Great South Africans, Mrs Ples made the list.

Not bad for someone who’s been dead for at least 2.1 million years.

Sadly, Mrs Ples was among the last of her kind. Soon after she was extinguished, so was her species. A sister species, A. sediba, lived in southeast Africa for a while longer, but it too eventually disappeared, probably the last of the australopithecines.

And for those who want to know what she looks like … here she is …

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