Multiple Ancient Hominids Found on Day 2 of Rising Star Expedition

On the first day in the fossil chamber at the Rising Star Expedition outside of Johannesburg, Lee Berger’s team recovered a hominid mandible. Seeing other bones lying about, they went to bed (or sleeping bag, rather) with the thrill of knowing they were working on one of paleoanthropology’s most treasured finds: a partial hominid skeleton.

By lunchtime the next day, the experts cataloging, photographing, and examining the fossils in the tent clearly marked “SCIENCE,” were shaking their heads in disbelief and excitement as they realized that the bones clearly came from more than one individual. Whatever species is represented, this is among the rarest of finds.

“This just doesn’t happen,” said Lee.

Paleoanthropologist Peter Schmid examines one of the hominid bones emerging from caves below. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Paleoanthropologist Peter Schmid examines one of the hominid bones emerging from caves below. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

 

Right Under Our Noses

A few years ago, the decades of exploration and excavation at a few sites and few new discoveries had some in the scientific community convinced that nearly everything had been found. Lee Berger thought differently and was convinced that countless big discoveries were still out there, and that there were hominid remains even right under our noses in well-explored areas.

With that in mind, he explored. Using Google Earth to find unexamined rock outcroppings similar to those that had already yielded fossils, he visited new sites. He also hired geologist and caver Pedro Boshoff and others from South Africa’s Speleological Exploration Club (SEC), to make exploratory caving trips to search for hominid fossils.

Rick Hunter, one of the two local cavers who discovered the bones, has been busy preparing the cave with lights and cameras and acting as guide and aid to the scientists. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Rick Hunter, one of the two local cavers who discovered the bones, has been busy preparing the cave with lights and cameras and acting as guide and aid to the scientists. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Gerrie Pretorius of the Speleological Exploration Club draws a map of the cave to help those of us above ground to know what's going on underground. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Gerrie Pretorius of the Speleological Exploration Club draws a map of the cave to help those of us above ground to know what’s going on underground. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

And that’s how this remarkable discovery was made: looking at old things in a new way, and enlisting the special skills and knowledge of untapped potential partners. By working together, these 30-some people of different ages, skills, and experiences have brought to light something no one of them working alone could possibly have managed.

Chance of a Lifetime

One of the experts on site, Steve Churchill of Duke University, spoke to the team of six young “underground astronaut” women venturing into the narrow, winding cave to record and recover the bones.

From the Command Center tent, Lee Berger can monitor the progress of the team past obstacles and while collecting or excavating fossils through remote cameras installed by members of the regional caving club. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
From the Command Center tent, Lee Berger can monitor the progress of the team past obstacles and while collecting or excavating fossils through remote cameras installed by members of the regional caving club. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

“You realize you all have handled more fossils today than most paleontologists handle in their entire careers,” he told them.

Later that night over toasts of celebratory champagne, Marina Elliott spoke about the respect she feels for the site and the responsibility they have to record it as completely and accurately as possible for the worldwide community now and in the future (something they’re doing with high-tech 3D scanning technology underground).

Marina Elliott, armed with a Go-Pro camera to give a caver's-eye-view of the action joins Hannah Morris on their second trip into the cave. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Marina Elliott, armed with a Go-Pro camera to give a caver’s-eye-view of the action joins Hannah Morris on their second trip into the cave. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

It’s not just for a few scientists she said. It’s part of our human history. It belongs to everyone.

[Updated 11/24/2013]

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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.