Video: Scientists Recover Ancient Hominid Skull From Cave

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“About half way through it became pretty clear that we weren’t going to leave until it was out. There was no way we were stopping.”

Becca Peixotto was not messing around today.

The original plan for the Rising Star Expedition involved removing exposed bones on Sunday, and beginning to excavate the skull piece on Monday, finishing maybe on Tuesday. Wednesday latest.

The sheer number of bones in the ground, and the unexpectedly delicate condition they are in threw that that plan to the wind. While at nearby sites like Malapa the hominid fossils are encased in cement-like breccia formed by water percolating through the limestone hills, here at Rising Star, the fossils are simply lying in the dirt.  While the dirt is easier to remove, it doesn’t provide the same level of protection that rock does.

In parts of the cave this dirt is dust, flying around visibly in the remote camera monitors, and in parts it’s damp and heavy. In the fossil chamber, it’s very damp, and if the bowl of the skull were lifted with the sediment still in the interior portion, its weight could cause the ancient bones to shatter like a hatching egg.

Go Time

Friday morning the cranium was still in the ground and the team was collecting every bone around it before attempting extraction. They worked barefoot to increase their sensitivity and awareness when stepping anywhere—because there are just that many fragile hominid bones in the cave.

Throughout camp, it seemed like a fairly quiet day. There was an air of tension, knowing that the team was working on the skull, but also the expectation that it wasn’t likely to be ready for removal until tomorrow. The excavators had other ideas.

Initially seen as the highlight of the recovery project, by this point the skull piece was almost an obstacle to further progress. It was precious, delicate, and kind of in the way. They wanted to get it out and get down to the rest of business.

Scientists work 30 meters below ground to carefully remove part of a hominid skull, buried in this cave for untold eons. (Photo by Garrreth Bird)


Getting a Head

Because of the extreme conditions inside the fossil chamber and the dangerous route required to reach it, it is easy to forget that this is still simply an archaeological excavation. Preparing the cave and picking up large, recognizable bones from the surface has just been the beginning. Now that the surface is mostly clear, it’s a dig like any other. The team must methodically work through the chamber, section by section, same as you’d see at Colonial Williamsburg, removing dirt layer by layer to reveals the “heap of hominid bones” below.

With their eyes on bringing the project into this next, long-term stage, “underground astronauts” Becca Peixotto and Marina Elliott blew past the anticipated end time and kept removing sediment from inside and around the skull until it could finally be lifted, wrapped and placed in a surprisingly picnic-basket-like containter.

Late in the afternoon, the call went out around camp: they’ve got the skull. The remaining principal excavators suited up and joined their comrades underground for the big moment. Above ground, Lee Berger and the other scientists and crew watched the team’s progress through the cave in black-and-white via remote cameras. Eyes that met the infrared head-on glowed like those of wild animals caught in a passing flashlight.

As the team celebrated another major milestone, despite the cool glow of a wireless tablet competing with the warmth of the fire, it was hard not to wonder whether the hominids in the cave ever had a night more similar to this than not. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
As the team celebrated another major milestone, despite the cool glow of a wireless tablet competing with the warmth of the fire, it was hard not to wonder whether the hominids in the cave ever had a night more similar to this than not. (Left to right: Gerrie Pretorius, Andre Doussy, Pedro Boshoff, Rick Hunter, Irene Kruger, and K Lindsay Eaves) (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Amid claps and cheers the scientists and cavers resurfaced. A major hurdle was surmounted. Many more bones could be recovered the next day. The calveria is being carefully stored to slowly dry before being handled. Soon the lab scientists will begin studying one of the most popularly exciting parts of a hominid skeleton: the skull, and we’ll move one step closer to figuring out who these creatures were.

One of those scientists, John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin, is thriving on the mystery. “Every piece that’s come out so far just puzzles us, and to be honest, I don’t really want it to stop.”

Read All Posts From the Rising Star Expedition



Meet the Author
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.