“We have a mandible. We’ve seen the skull. And there are more bones. Lots of them.”
The sun is setting and streaking the South African sky with layers of pink clouds, seeming to join the spirit of celebration at the site. With this first fossil in hand, and clearly much more still below, we’re witnessing a particularly rare moment in the study of human evolution.
How Rare Is It?
For all the hundreds of fossils of early human ancestors that have been discovered, there are only a few examples of pieces of skull and pieces of the rest of the body clearly associated with each other. Lucy is one. Turkana Boy is another. Australopithecus sediba has two.
And now there’s another.
It’s not clear what species these fossils belong to, but with so many bones simply lying on the ground in the deep chamber, whatever species they belong to it will add an incalculable amount of new information (and inevitably stir up a comparable amount of debate).
At 1:30pm South Africa time, Lee gathered everyone outside the main entrance to the cave. Cables for the cameras, lights, and communication lines that cavers have laid over the past three days drew the eye and led the way into the darkness.
Steve Tucker (one of the original discoverers) was still in the cave adjusting the final lights. Further in, Rick Hunter (the other discoverer) awaited the first scientists to make their way to the final chamber.
Leading the way was Lee Berger’s cave-loving son Matthew, who had been in the cave before and placed a flag to mark the mandible so the caver/scientists would know what they were looking at as soon as they arrived.
“Advance Scientists Team 1,” consisted of Becca Peixotto, Marina Elliott, and Hannah Morris. They placed flags at every visible hominid fossil on the ground. Then they waved the clothes-iron-like state-of-the-art Arctech 3D white-light scanner to record the site exactly as it appeared before they touched a single fossil.
Almost Like Being There
Back at the surface, Lee and the rest of the team watched a large monitor showing a grid of nine cameras positioned throughout the cave. “Matthew has passed ‘the postbox’,” Lee announced as he noted the time it took. His running tally helped create much more accurate estimates of how long each stage of the process would take going forward.
The cameras showed the trickiest passages of the cave, as well as the fossils lying on the ground. Calling down over the phone-style communication lines, Lee had the first entrants adjust one of the cameras, then adjust the light shining on it. “That’s it, that’s the skull,” he said.
When they said “skull,” I for one pictured an australopithecine Yorick placed upon the ground. What we actually saw was a white crescent-shaped cross section in the dark earth. Everyone else seemed to recognize it instantly.
Apparently to anthropologists C is for cranium.
The Third Dimension
Eventually in one of the Brady-Bunch windows we could see Marina begin to scan. Half an hour later she emerged from the cave, with a hard drive containing the files of the scan.
The people in the command center buzzed with excitement as the files were loaded on to the computer, and on another giant monitor in front of us all, the floor of the cave was reconstructed in microscopic detail, dirt, rocks, and hominid fossils all. The large, clean, recognizable mandible was a main point of focus, though there were large pieces of limb bones as well.
Carnival-like 0ohs and aahs at the techological wizardry betrayed the incredible scientific value of these scans. Decades from now, when others study these bones, they will be able to examine the site as it was from the beginning and could learn from details scientists today don’t even know to be looking for.
Caver/scientist K. Lindsay Eaves teared up over the excitement, anticipation, and thankfulness of being here. Neanderthal expert-turned-early hominid researcher Steve Churchill was just all the more antsy to have the actual fossils in hand. “I want it in 3D that I can touch,” he said with a grin.
The Patient Arrives
Not long after, he had his wish. Gently unwrapping the bubble wrap Becca had protected the fossil in, Steve held the mandible of an early hominid. It occurred to me that in a way, it has not been long at all since that bone was in the mouth of a living thing.
Steve and the other scientists moved slowly, thinking a lot, speaking softly, with a sense of awe, excitement, and wheels-turning in their heads. It was Homo sapiens the “wise or thinking man” in all his glory, looking at something interesting he’d found.
Steve’s voice sounded like a field surgeon’s as he identified the part of the jaw and the teeth present, gave it a catalog number, and began describing its points of interest to his tent full of colleagues.
Now everyone is sitting around, winding down from the excitement, enjoying the last bits of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and basking in the glow of laptop monitors showing the day’s photos and footage.
6:3o in the morning tomorrow, we’ll have a briefing and the underground astronauts will get back to work.
Within hours, from the floor of a cave, through tight squeezes, and over rocky obstacles, more bones will be carried out. Laid out in the science tent, they will retake their original shape and begin a new chapter in the study of our earliest hominid relatives.