Video: Fossil Cache Yields Multiple Ancient Hominids

Within 24 hours of beginning their fossil recovery, scientists on the Rising Star Expedition discover that the cave contains more than one individual.

Having gone to bed the night before thrilled that they had in hand a hominid mandible, and that limb bones and part of a skull still lay within the cave, everyone was quite satisfied with the results of the expedition so far.

Midway through the next morning, some of the bones were being found more than once.

Vertebrates being bilaterally symmetrical, whatever bone of one you find which is discernible as left or right, if you find another, that’s a pretty good sign you’ve got more than one individual.

As the day progressed, the experts in the tent marked “SCIENCE” shook their heads and looked skeptically at each other as they unwrapped the bone fragments and found themselves saying things like, “That sure looks like another one of these…” and “Let me see #18 again…”

In this part of South Africa, most of the hominid finds are encased in concrete-like rock called breccia, which takes months to chip away enough to reveal bones inside. At expedition leader Lee Berger’s lab at the nearby University of Witwatersrand, they are still working their way through hunks of stone discovered in 2009 bearing the remains of Australopithecus sediba.

Having spent only 11 hours total in the cave so far, to have dozens of fossils neatly labeled and clearly indicating the presence of multiple individuals, the team members are beside themselves.

“Lee, day by day, I can’t believe what’s going on here,” said Peter Schmid, a long-time collaborator with Berger who has worked for decades at sites in Syria, Africa and elsewhere. “It’s crazy.”

 

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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.