As scientists work to identify and catalog the now more than 800 hominid fossils recovered on the Rising Star Expedition, they pull from a body of knowledge accumulated over decades in their field.
An intimate knowledge not only of broad principles but of specific specimens around the world is their constant reference as each piece is brought to the tent marked “SCIENCE.”
While it’s entirely possible that somewhere in the cave below, hidden under dirt and other bones lies a perfectly intact skull, so far the the team is working with pieces brought up individually and carefully fitted together by Peter Schmid, an expert in reconstructions who gave Lucy her more accurate reassembly in the 1980s.
Peter was aided in his skull work last week by Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A&M University, who carefully examined every skull fragment and individual tooth in-hand and under a powerful digital microscope. At either scale, he looks for specific traits that when taken together help identify the species behind the pieces.
Here in South Africa, there are four main hominid species that have been discovered. The following sketches attempt to illustrate the tell-tale skull characteristics of each, as described to me by Darryl over lunch on his last day in camp.
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.
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