By 6:00am, the sun is shining, everyone in camp is up and getting breakfast and gathering for the morning briefing from expedition leader Lee Berger.
Today’s assignments were clear: set up more shower tents, get the gear ready, and finish installing the lights. The lights are going into the cave. Deep in the cave are the recently discovered hominid fossils whose recovery is the goal of this Rising Star Expedition.
Along with the team of six caver/scientists are their full-blown caver leaders, including Rick Hunter and Steve Tucker who made the discovery as part of Lee’s exploration team.
The actual excavation will involve tight squeezes, long hours, and painstaking recording with some of the most advanced 3D scanners around. If those fail, there’s a very reliable Plan B: “The backup for our Star Trek tri-corder is a pencil,” joked Lee at the science briefing.Caver/scientist Hannah Morris admires the skylight in a part of the cave once explored and even blasted by miners. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
The day before, the team had gotten their first taste of the cave’s interior.
Staying within the first 50 meters or so, everyone was comfortably walking upright, watching out for the uneven ground, but otherwise moving with the kind of bipedal dexterity that is our heritage from whatever species of early hominid once lived nearby.
Throughout our time at the site, there have been several moments that seemed to reverberate with echoes of those early ancestors.
It started with finding that the best hammer for the tent pegs was a hunk of rock best wielded like a Capuchin monkey cracking nuts.
When building a wooden platform to level the ground and provide a safe surface for the technical equipment tent, we gathered large stones from nearby and stacked them into a basic foundation just as people have done from recent times to build houses and the earliest times even just to build a fire ring (admittedly we later replaced it with more efficient wooden legs).
At one point, coming down the hill from the upper camp, I passed three of the little girls who live with their extended family on the property. They were amusing themselves by taking rocks and cracking them against each other. I was kind of proud of how far we’ve come to see 5-year-olds doing something that was at one point the pinnacle of primate technical achievement.
Later on, while waiting for my smartphone to charge at the recently-started generator, I decided to explore a bit and climbed to the top of the hill behind the cave entrances. I had a beautiful panorama of the campsite, and could see people working away on setting up tents and other tasks. They looked small, but they looked like modern people. Then, across the field another figure caught my eye. This one looked like Sasquatch, or as I quickly thought and preferred, any kind of bipedal primate swinging his arms and walking through the long African grass. Further away, silhouetted, and in form-hiding coveralls, he was simplified into that basic form which has tread these trails for a long, long time.
With these kinds of thoughts bipedally running through my head, I’ve been getting mentally geared up for the big moments to come, when the bones are removed from the cave and we get a sense of just what this discovery will mean.
The six brilliant and bold caver/scientists on the other hand are gearing up literally. Putting batteries in their headlamps, adjusting the fit of their helmets and harnesses, and in one case even hemming her new worksuit to fit her able-to-fit-in-places-so-small-you-couldn’t-even-lose-your-keys frame.
Once properly suited up they posed for a team photo. Looking so spiffy. So ready for adventure. So clean.