When scientists from South Africa made the trip to Grenoble in south eastern France recently, they brought with them a very special travelling companion.
The name on the passport — were there to have been one – would read Australopithicus.
The date of birth — around two-million years ago.
And distinguishing marks? Long legs that gave a human stride, and long arms that gave an ape’s reach.
The discovery in South Africa in 2008 has only recently been made public, and the scientists who found the hominid say it is one of the best-preserved specimens ever discovered.
And so the palaeoanthropologist Professor Lee Berger from Johannesburg brought his find to be examined by the synchrotron in France for a closer look.
The synchrotron is a particle accelerator that can look inside a fossil block, sometimes down to a thousandth of a millimetre, without having to break it up.
The result is a kind of super X-ray picture, an image in 3D with contrast, sensitivity and resolution that far surpass that of conventional X-ray machines.
In fact the synchrotron in Grenoble is a thousand billion times more intense than the machine that would diagnose a broken leg in hospital.
The use of X-ray synchrotron technology for studying fossils has been developed in Grenoble by the French palaeoanthropologist Paul Tafforeau.
His work has allowed scientists a view inside their samples, highlighting features in minute detail, even down to the tiniest parts of bones.
Professor Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand said: “What we have here is the highest resolution scan of an object this size that we can do anywhere in the world. It’s a fossil skull of a new species of human ancestor from South Africa dating to about 1.9 million years. And what it’s going to do is to allow us to look at internal morphology, the age of death and structures we can’t even imagine, in a way that’s quite literally unprecedented in paleontological sciences.”
Studying the fossil’s teeth could provide the precise age at which the individual died. And comparing the real age with his level of development — in this case equivalent to a 13 year old modern human — should give important insights about his life.
Professor Berger decided to push the two-week investigation even further by using the synchrotron’s X-rays to investigate the possible remnants of soft parts of the body that normally do not fossilise.
The analysis has thrown up vast quantities of information, and the experts have only just begun to pore over the terabytes of the data. But already, preliminary views of the skull have revealed some intriguing details.
Among them are the fossilised insect eggs whose larvae could have fed on the tissue of the hominid after its death. Researchers also noticed an extended low density area that could point towards a remnant of the brain after its bacterial decay.
It is only the second time ever that a complete skull of a hominid has been scutinised by the powerful beams of synchrotron radiation.
And it is only possible at the Grenoble site, that has already a world leader in the field of non-destructive analysis.