About 3.5 million years ago, the creature, who had human and animal characteristics, fell face down into a cave and died. The discovery of an adult ape man, one of humanity's early ancestors, is a world first. The skull and skeleton are intact. Not even a tooth is missing.
Ron Clarke, a palaeo-anthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand who made the find, calls the discovery a staggering achievement. He and his team found the skeletal left and right legs side by side, face down. "And I thought, 'My goodness, we must have the whole skeleton here'," he says.
It will take the scientists almost a year to chisel the skeleton out of the rock. And then, scientists believe, the remains of the ape man will unravel the mystery of human evolution.
The skeleton was discovered underground at Sterkfontein, a former lime quarry cave that has yielded a number of hominid skulls since the 1930s. The find was reported Wednesday in the South African Journal of Science. A news story will appear Thursday in the journal Nature.