New Australopithecus robustus fossils and associated U-Pb dates from Cooper's Cave (Gauteng, South Africa)
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Australopithecus robustus is one of the best represented hominin taxa in Africa, with hundreds of specimens recovered from six fossil localities in the Bloubank Valley area of Gauteng Province, South Africa. However, precise geochronological ages are presently lacking for these fossil cave infills. In this paper, we provide a detailed geological background to a series of hominin fossils retrieved from the newly investigated deposit of Cooper's D (located partway between Sterkfontein and Kromdraai in the Bloubank Valley), including uranium-lead (U-Pb) ages for speleothem material associated with A. robustus. U-Pb dating of a basal speleothem underlying the entire deposit results in a maximum age of 1.526 (±0.088) Ma for Cooper's D. A second U-Pb date of ca. 1.4 Ma is produced from a flowstone layer above this basal speleothem; since this upper flowstone is not a capping flowstone, and fossiliferous sediments are preserved above this layer, some of the hominins might be slightly younger than the calculated age. As a result, we can broadly constrain the age of the hominins from Cooper's D to between 1.5 and approximately 1.4 Ma. Extinct fauna recorded in this comparatively young deposit raise the possibility that the Bloubank Valley region of South Africa represented a more stable environmental refugium for taxa relative to tectonically more active East Africa. The sediments of the deposit likely infilled rapidly during periods when arid conditions prevailed in the paleoenvironment, although it is unclear whether sediment deposition and bone deposition were necessarily contemporaneous occurrences. We reconstruct the paleoenvironment of Cooper's D as predominantly grassland, with nearby woodlands and a permanent water source. The hominin teeth recovered from Cooper's D are all from juveniles and can be confidently assigned to A. robustus. In addition, two juvenile mandibular fragments and an adult thoracic vertebra are tentatively attributed to A. robustus.