Changing Planet

A “Day Off” Still Manages to Yield Another Hominid Skeleton

“I just want to say, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

Lee Berger wrapped up an impromptu meeting tonight with an almost giddy attitude. A moment earlier he had been all business, asking the caver/scientists for their thoughts on how best to tackle their latest obstacles, which are considerable: there are too many bones; they need to adjust the collection plan to handle them all safely.

Catching Up

When we last left our heroes, they were proud of the successful kickoff of their expedition, thrilled that they had recovered a hominid mandible on the first day, surprised to discover there are multiple individuals represented by the fossils in this cave, and eager to get back underground to excavate the skull remains whose light cross section stands out clearly against the dark dirt.

Lee Berger watches the live feed in the command center. A few hours later he was still there, leaning back, amazed at the team's good fortune in finding yet more ancient hominid remains. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Lee Berger watches the live feed in the command center. A few hours later he was still there, leaning back, amazed at the team’s good fortune in finding yet more ancient hominid remains. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Yesterday, as caver/scientists Hannah Morris, Alia Gurtov, and Marina Elliott began the cranium recovery, they were de-railed. As the team slowly picked and brushed out the dirt along the outside edge, they realized there were more bones under the surface, preventing them from easily clearing the area and lifting the cranium from its resting place.

“More bones” is a good problem, but it’s still a problem. It’s no longer feasible to clear a few inches of dirt on every side and simply lift the fossil out.
Excavation of the skull remains was put on hold, and a new plan developed to slowly excavate a wider area inch by inch, to reveal all the bones as they lay.

A Night of Relaxation

After three days of work, the Rising Star Expedition had unearthed more early hominid fossils than many sites have over years. Lee decided it was time for a break and a treat, and sent the highly educated and highly athletic “underground astronauts” for a night of relaxation with a host off site.

Nature seemed to be in a similar mood. After having thundered and blown and soaked the area in the afternoon, by early evening we found ourselves in a shockingly beautiful landscape of dramatically backlit raindrops, huge blue clouds and a giant rainbow arcing clear across the horizon.

In the Cradle of Humankind, at the end of a rainbow are bunches of hominid fossils. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

That night at camp the camera crew, lab scientists, cavers, and other team members chowed down on pot roast and yams (real African yams, not American sweet potatoes which often go by the same name). That might sound insignificant, but I mention it to segue and impart upon you some hard-earned wisdom: If a Swiss paleoanthropologist ever offers you a whiff of his fancy Swiss menthol snuff… spit in his eye.

A Day Off

This morning was the first no-caving period since the excavation began. Many of us didn’t wake until about 6:41 when the rising sun had heated the air in our sealed-up plastic-coated tents to such a level that I found myself in a near panic, trying to get my head out the zipper to suck in some cool air.

The top-side scientists made their way up the hill to shore up their tent, nearly blown apart during yesterday’s storm.

I grabbed my bag and headed up to the hilltop behind the site to commune with nature.

Barely 8:00 in the morning, the sun was already too hot to sit in. I found the shade of some bushes and sat, looking out over the rolling landscape. I was the only person up there, though as I settled into speechlessness I began to picture early hominids hunched on rocks near me, and I wondered how we could have communicated. I imagined we could do a lot with simple glances: “See that hill? You go there.” “See that other hill? You go there.” “You, tough guy, you just sit there. I’m still the big man on this hill.” (Hey as long as I’m daydreaming, I get to be the hominid in charge.)

The only problem with that scenario is that it might very possibly not have worked at all. As Steve Churchill and I discussed later, dogs are very good at reading human reference through gaze direction, as are some birds, such as ravens, but no other apes have been shown to do this. It’s possible that it only developed in our own line quite recently. Or not. Add it to the list of hominid mysteries.

The road was barely audible, and I soon tuned in to the sounds of the various birds perching on rocks and in trees, or flying overhead. There were swallows diving erratically through the air, and though the insects they hunted were invisible to me, the birds’ fishlike darting about seemed to make the air itself visible, and I had a sense of the thickness of this medium teeming with tiny bugs, and churning with powerful currents the birds use to their advantage.

An Afternoon Back On

By midday, Becca Peixotto and Marina Elliott were ready to get back in the cave. With the changes to the cranium recovery plan, they simply collected other small fossils still lying on the surface.

The sense of relaxation continued until we heard Lee Berger speaking to them from the comms line in the Command Center: “More cranial pieces?” The pair had found what appeared to be possible foot and hand bones as well.

Whether these bones belong to one of the hominids already recognized by other bones in the Science tent, or whether they represent yet another individual is yet to be determined.

Eager to dig into the new collection of fossils brought up by the caver/scientists today, everyone was forced to wait, as a pending storm made it unwise to expose the fossils in a tent. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Eager to dig into the new collection of fossils brought up by the caver/scientists today, everyone was forced to wait, as a pending storm made it unwise to expose the fossils in a tent. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

They sent up a bag containing some of these newly found bones, but before the top-side scientists could examine them, the South African afternoon brought on another enormous thunderstorm.

This time, the rain and wind were milder near us, and as night fell we watched a spectacular show of lightning to the north and east. Flashes and bolts were so frequent they provided a fairly reliable level of visibility.

The sky was violent but beautiful, and everyone was ecstatic about another significant find at the site.

It was their day off, and the team still managed to find the remains of another hominid skeleton.

Can’t wait to see what’s in that bag.


Read All Rising Star Expedition Posts


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 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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