The scientific name for this hominid species means Southern ape-man from Africa. The species was first recognized by Dr. Raymond Dart in South Africa in 1920, but was not officially recognized until 1960. Although numerous specimens of this gracile australopithecine were recovered from South African cave deposits, an absolute date could not be assigned to their antiquity until specimens were recovered from Olduvai Gorge that could be dated in relation to dateable volcanic tuffs from Bed I. Dates derived from these specimens indicate A. africanus lived between 3 and 2 million years ago.
This species, in combination with the earlier Australopithecus afarensis, are considered the gracile australopithecines because of the slightness of their facial features. Compare this illustration with that of the robust australopithecine that follows. Note not only how much smaller these individuals were than the robust individuals, but also how much lighter the bone structure of A. africanus is than A. robustus. This feature has lead paleoanthropologists to infer that A. africanus was adapted to a very general diet, rather than a highly specialized one. Furthermore, A. africanus is believed to be fully bipedal based on its skeletal morphology.