We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Tent

After the field trip the day before, the excavation team was eager to get back into the cave.

The early hominids seemed just as eager to get out.

On the first day of excavations the goal was to recover a mandible. Little did anyone expect to be doing it again within a week. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
On the first day of excavations the goal was to recover a mandible. Little did anyone expect to be doing it again within a week. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The first goal of the day was to finish excavating the recently revealed mandible. For twenty minutes, the top-side folks were gathered around the monitors watching as grain by grain the sediment was picked and brushed away. Eventually the hands on screen disappeared and then returned with a small scale they placed next to the fossil. “They’re taking the pictures. That means they’re about to remove the fossil” Marina informed us.

But first there was more picking and brushing.

Eventually, there was a flurry of activity. From the top of the frame, Hannah Morris’s face appeared, visibly holding her breath. A sheet of bubble-wrap appeared on screen and the hands lifted a bright streak out of the ground and placed it on the wrap. Above ground the Command Center erupted in applause and cheers.

Suddenly the National Geographic theme was trumpeting through the air–Lee Berger’s phone.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe…


Shortly thereafter, the comms phone rang and John Hawks picked up. “What do you mean there’s another one?” he said. “Another mandible?”

As the team was lifting this last piece, yet more teeth had been revealed underneath.

Outside the tent, Lee was spreading the news to the rest of the team. “Paleoheaven has arrived,” he told them. “It’s just solid fossils.”

A few minutes later, skull specialist Darryl de Ruiter made his way from the Science tent to the Command Center: “We’re running out of space.”

“There’s another safe down there,” said Lee with surprise.

“You keep bringing up fossils. We keep putting them away,” Darryl replied.

Jaws III

That night, they recovered that additional piece of mandible before exiting the cave. Today, up came part of a frontal bone from a cranium, and more long bones. And as has become the normal rhythm of the days here, the removal of those pieces simply revealed more bones below them.

In the science tent, Peter Schmid photographed every fossil that came up from the cave, as Darryl examined the existing mandible pieces under a microscope.

By mid-afternoon, Lee went on another run to purchase a few hundred more plastic boxes to keep the fossils in. I read the blog post John Hawks had been working on yesterday and made a major edit: his reference to there now being “300 fossils” recovered had to be updated to read “400.”

That’s when Roy Scheider suddenly backed into the Command Center staring blankly, cigarette dangling from his lip, and told us, “You’re gonna need a bigger tent.”


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 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.