Video: Taking a Beating for Science

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Climbing, squeezing, dragging, and pushing yourself through tiny passages in a cave can take a serious toll on your body. The cavers and scientists of the Rising Star Expedition though are willing to bash and bruise themselves to recover the broken bones of untold numbers of ancient hominids.

From the start, safety has been a priority on this expedition. Everyone entering the cave has experience underground, and the most experienced of them all serve as guides, support, and if needed, rescue team.

One ladder has been carried in and fixed to a tricky climb near the entrance, another has been constructed of wood carried piece by piece into the final chamber to avoid a drop after the 12-meter downward squeeze known as the Chute.

An Ariadne rope has been fixed along the whole path to keep anyone from getting lost, and support ropes and harnesses are set up along the craggy climb known as Dragon’s Back.

Still, for all the precautions, there is no getting around the fact that getting from the surface to the fossil chamber gives your body a beating.

After the first ladder, the next obstacle is a belly crawl through a tunnel called Post Box, which everyone contends is easy(!) once you get past the rock in the ground at the start that essentially cuts the width of the tunnel by a third. Tilting and pushing around this rock, shoulders, ribs, and hips can get banged and pressed every time through.

Scratches and scrapes from crawling and climbing brand the legs and forearms of some team members.

The real bruiser though is the Chute. Squeezing through tiny openings, jamming knees and elbows into cracks for stability, and unavoidably swinging or banging into the countless spines and protuberances has given these explorers what amounts to temporary full-body leopard-print tattoos.

They wear them with pride.


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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.