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Video: The Cavers Behind South Africa’s New Hominid Discovery

Scientists from South Africa, the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Switzerland are camped out on a farm outside Johannesburg, recovering and studying a cache of ancient hominid fossils. None of them would be there if it weren’t for the skills of South Africa’s caving community. Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg hired...

Scientists from South Africa, the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Switzerland are camped out on a farm outside Johannesburg, recovering and studying a cache of ancient hominid fossils.

None of them would be there if it weren’t for the skills of South Africa’s caving community.

Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg hired geoologist and caver Pedro Boshoff to begin exploring the caves around the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site. When Pedro reached passages he couldn’t fit in, he in turn brought Steve Tucker and Rick Hunter into the project.

Steve and Rick were out on a fossil exploration mission in September, when they squeezed down a 20-meter vertical crack and were stopped in their tracks by the unmistakable sight of human remains. Well, close to human. They could tell these were the kinds of fossils Berger had directed them to search for.

Now they find themselves on leave from their day jobs and running lights, camera, and communications lines into a cave 30 meters below ground, and being on hand to guide, support (and if needed, rescue) a hand-picked team of scientists painstakingly excavating the precious fossils.

The skills and knowledge developed in their countless hours of exploring are now one of the most critical elements of a major scientific expedition.

“In my wildest dreams I would never have thought caving would take me to what is happening here,” Steve said.

With Lee Berger, Gregg Treinish and other scientists committed to working with adventuring groups like cavers, hikers, and mountain climbers, perhaps these are exactly the kind of wildest dreams the next generation will have.

[UPDATED 11/24/2013: This post initially described the cavers as finding the fossils during a recreational caving trip.]

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
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.