Changing Planet

In the Hot Seat

By John Hawks

I am having a great day.

I’m watching our advance scientists brushing sediment off a fossil cranium, and it is thrilling seeing what they are uncovering. Lee Berger and the team at Wits has been preparing and carrying out this excavation for five weeks. Now that the system is in place and running smoothly, he’s taken off for a brief evening at home.

Leaving me in the hot seat: handling comms in the command center and being on-site fire-putter-outer. It’s a stressful job — monitoring the work on nine camera feeds, arranging drops of supplies into the site, and making sure that they have the support and safety they need.

Fortunately with this team there aren’t any fires to put out. The advance team of scientists in the cave are working great together, coming up with innovative solutions to the unique problems working in this environment. The cavers supporting them have been brilliant, anticipating what they need and keeping everybody safe. The senior science team is cataloguing, identifying pieces and working to conserve the remains. It’s an incredible system, and it’s been up and running through four full excavation days.

Our team has put itself in the hot seat in another way. If you know much about paleoanthropology, you’ve probably heard about how secretive field projects can be. New discoveries often go years without being announced to professional anthropologists, much less the public.

Why are so many projects so secretive? Discovery is hard work — both in the field and in the laboratory. Other scientists can be brutal critics, pointing out flaws in early interpretations. Sometimes they even steal your work. Our field has historically been a shark tank, and sharing makes the sharks start circling.

We believe that sharing will make our science better. Rising Star is the most open paleoanthropological project that has ever been attempted. We’re experimenting with new ways of sharing the experience. Lee brought together the team of advance scientists by putting out a call on Facebook. National Geographic has been incredibly supportive, with their crew onsite to share updates and video. The senior scientists are sharing updates on Twitter and Facebook, many events as they are happening — follow @LeeRBerger, @RisingStarExped, and @johnhawks.

This three-week expedition is only the beginning of our innovation. As we analyze the fossils, we are going to continue new experiments with sharing and open access. We’ve got some incredible things planned.

In my next post, I’m going to describe some of the challenges of sharing, and what we’re doing about them. We’re collecting new information from the site with every descent, and we’ve seen some tantalizing things we aren’t confident about. I’ll describe what we’re sharing and what we’re not sharing — yet. And we’ll invite your feedback about how to do it better.

I’ve had an extraordinary number of new fossils pass through my hands in the last four days. But here’s what finally brought me to tears: Our young scientists and cavers running up to the command center, cranking up the generator, so they could do a spontaneous Skype call to a third grade class in Rhode Island.

Keep watching.

  • Carol Feuerriegel

    All of human history has been about the transfer of information and knowledge across time. Sometimes to ensure that flow of information you really to do have to ‘Go Boldly…’ and its not for the faint hearted or the people who love them! These young scientists and the people who support them are creating this history for all of us as we watch. The openness and generosity of the Professor Berger and the ‘Rising Star Expedition’ is a game-changer in more ways than I think anyone will realise for a long time.

    I have been fascinated by information and knowledge all my life. Most mothers dream of their child growing up ‘to cure cancer’ but I think that phrase is parent-code for just doing something that will benefit the human species – anything would do! I think my dream has been realised in a way more fitting than even I could have ever anticipated as the world watches Ellie, the shy, meticulous and funny child with a passion for skeletons, help rewrite our understanding of who we are and where we have come from. Its a great time to be alive for all of us!

  • Steve Ferry

    Could you tell me what the context of the finds is in the cave? Are the bones scattered around on the surface or do you have to dig them out? What other animal remains are there? Is this a carnivore’s lair or did the hominids fall in to a hole in the ground? Sorry that’s a lot of questions and no doubt you are working on making sense of the matrix they have been found in. Could I just add that this is a wonderful blog and I will be looking at it daily.

  • John Hawks

    These are some great questions — I can’t reply individually to all of them, but I will be addressing them in upcoming posts!

  • Sandra Morris

    Well said, Carol. I am also the mother of one of the scientists and am eternally grateful to Lee Berger for making this exploration and recovery public. It is amazing to be able to see and even hear Hannah from so far away and be able to follow their discoveries in real time.

    Let’s just hope his example will be followed by others. What an incredible use of technology!

  • Margi

    Thanks for sharing! To hear from you guys as things happen makes it feel like we are there and part of the excitement. Reading about digs years later is what makes paleo-anthropological projects feel like a dead science.

    I am a South African who emigrated to New Zealand so I love hearing the New Zealand accent! You go Ellie!

  • kamran muhammad

    its one of the most beautiful and adventoure vedio that i watch afen on national geographic chennel all time and that you people put your life in japarty
    to intertent as every day and every moment to show wild life is well.

    best regard

    kamran muhammad

  • John S. Mead

    As a Secondary school biology teacher who teaches the ins & outs of hominid evolution, the openness of Rising Star is a boon not only to my own desire for knowledge, but also in the impact it has on teaching my students about how science SHOULD work and the value of teamwork and patience – characteristics that are often overlooked in the modern teenage world. Sharing Rising star daily with my students and others through my blog ( has improved how well my students see the wider world and made them very active “hypothesizers” in a way that no scripted classroom activity could do! This expedition is truly a game changer!

  • tony

    i’m crying

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