There Are Hominid Fossils Waiting to Be Discovered!

Rising Star Expedition: November 7, 2013

The tents are up. The generators are purring. The clothes have dried from the adventure of a gear rescue during a quick but powerful South African thunderstorm. We’re sitting quietly at last, in collapsible chairs, and suddenly Elen Feuerriegel’s Australian accent excitedly breaks the silence.

“Under the ground here somewhere… there are hominid fossils waiting to be discovered!”

Tired from a day of camp building, evolutionary biomechanics expert Elen Feuerreigel still beams with excitement for the excavation ahead. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Tired from a day of camp building, evolutionary biomechanics expert Elen Feuerriegel still beams with excitement for the excavation ahead. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The first day on site for the Rising Star Expedition has been, like the first day of almost anything, filled mostly with grunt work. This field is generally occupied only by the neighbor’s horses, which continue to nibble and gallop just beyond the edge of our collection of tents. For the next few weeks, it will be home to between 30 and 60 scientists and cavers, and there’s a lot to get ready to make that work.

The tents are set. The fossils await. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
The tents are set. The fossils await. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

There are 15 two-person tents, a medical/internet tent, a mess hall, generator, and an equipment storage tent. Up the hill past the farmhouse and the little girls jumping rope with one end tied to the wire fence, is another gear tent, two more generators, and what will soon be the science tent. Eventually it will hold high-tech equipment which will get a blog post of its own, but right now it looks more like an archaeological site, with a foundation of stones gathered from the area (watch out for scorpions) and a grid of two-by-fours being covered with huge rectangles of particleboard, screwed-in by an esteemed paleoanthropologist and a young paleo-botanist on a break from building her own house back in the U.S.

That’s the stuff that needs to happen before the scientists even begin the inspiring work that brought them here.

Peter Schmid of the Anthropological Institute, University of Zurich puts his whole body into the dying power drill before swapping in a new battery. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Peter Schmid of the Anthropological Institute, University of Zurich puts his whole body into the dying power drill before swapping in a new battery. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

That work is the excavation of newly discovered early human ancestor fossils from deep within a cave in South Africa. So deep that the head of the project, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger, sent out a call via his Facebook page for the specific type of researcher he needed:

“Individuals with excellent archaeological/paleontological and excavation skills … The catch is this – the person must be skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience. Climbing experience would be a bonus.”

Through the wonders of the Internet he ended up with 57 applicants, which he whittled down to six women who are on-site now outside of Johannesburg. With expertise in biomechanics, ancient plants, and even historical archaeology, these scientists are about to become, as Lee Berger puts it, “underground astronauts.” Follow this blog and you’ll meet them all in the coming weeks.

The cave passages are tiny. The quarters will be cramped. The risk of injury, decreasing air quality, and mental strain are very real. As Marina Elliott put it, “I just don’t want to end up thinking about ‘Gravity’.”

The grunt work may be mostly done, but the intense challenges are very much still ahead.

Driving all these women, and everyone supporting them, are the prospect of uncovering a true scientific treasure, and the sense of duty to their subject.

There are hominid fossils waiting to be discovered.

A thin white line leads the way (and the electricity) into one of the entrances to the cave. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
A thin white line leads the way (and the electricity) into one of the entrances to the cave. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

 

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Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.

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