PARIS - A short, hairy "ape man" who tumbled into a pit in South Africa millions of years ago is back in the running as a candidate ancestor for humans, scientists said Friday.
A painstaking 13-year probe has "convincingly shown", they said, that the strange-looking creature named Little Foot lived some three million years ago - almost a million years earlier than calculated by rival teams.
If so, it would make Little Foot - so named for the diminutive size of the bones - one of the oldest members of the Australopithecus hominid family ever found.
And it would bolster the status of South Africa's Sterkfontein cave complex as part of the "Cradle of Humankind", a UN-recognised World Heritage Site.
"Some have said South Africa is too young" to have given rise to modern man, said Laurent Bruxelles from France's National Institute for Archaeological Research (Inrap), who took part in the study.
"We are putting Little Foot and South Africa back in the running."
Another challenger for the title of human ancestor was "Lucy," a specimen of a different strand of Australopithecus - the genus that had both ape and human features, walked upright, and is believed to have given rise to Homo sapiens, or anatomically modern Man, via Homo habilis.
Lucy's skeleton, uncovered in Ethiopia in 1974, has been dated to about three million years, although as always in fossils, there is a big margin of uncertainty.
"No longer are the Australopithecus of East Africa, like Lucy, the sole candidates" to have been our ancestors, said Bruxelles.