Pinetown Museum, located in the middle of what’s become a bustling commercial area, offers a welcome respite from the noise and commotion of the mini-city that it calls home. Amongst the treasures hidden inside the museum is a replica of the skull of Mrs Ples, the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus ever found in South Africa. What makes Mrs Ples so special is that prior to her discovery it was thought that the big brain of Homo had preceded, or at least evolved at the same time as our ability to walk upright. But the cranial capacity of Mrs. Ples is only about 485 cubic centimetres (cc), about the equivalent of a chimpanzee, and much smaller than that of Homo sapiens which measures approximately 1350 cc’s. So Mrs Ples was one of the first fossils to reveal that upright walking had evolved well before any significant growth in brain size.
Mrs. Ples was discovered by Robert Broom and John T. Robinson on April 18, 1947. Unfortunately because of Broom’s use of dynamite and pickaxes while excavating, Mrs. Ples’s skull was damaged, and some fragments are missing. However even withstanding the damage caused during excavation Mrs.Ples remains one of the most perfect pre-human skulls ever found.
Prior to being included into the species Australopithecus africanus, Broom initially gave his discovery the scientific designation Plesianthropus transvaalensis (near-man from the Transvaal). The nickname ‘Mrs. Ples’ (Plesianthropus) was given to the skull by Broom’s young co-workers, and the name stuck! Although there is some uncertainty over the sex of the skull, as well as its age – some scientists believe that Mrs Ples is the skull of an adolescent, which means that Mrs Ples, might actually be ‘Miss’ Ples, or perhap even ‘Mr’!
So if you’re keen to add your two cents to the debate on Mrs Ples, then pay a visit to the Pinetown Museum this weekend – who knows, it might just ignite a passion for anthropology you never knew you had!