Final Day of Excavations

After three weeks of deep-cave hominid fossil recovery, the Rising Star Expedition has wrapped on its final day of excavations.

The caver/scientists known as “underground astronauts” will return Wednesday to complete the 3D scans of the entire fossil chamber, walls and all. They will be aided by the caving support team as they remove the hi-tech equipment that has made this NASA-like mission possible.

There are 17 sleeping tents, plus the storage tent and the larger mess hall, Cavers tent, Science tent, and Command Center to disassemble, pack, and ship out.

There are also the more than 1200 cataloged hominid fossil elements to transfer to Wits University.

Becca Peixotto, Lee Berger, and John Hawks watch excitedly as the caver/scientists excavate one of the final fossils of the expedition. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Plans are now being made for how to handle all these new fossils, not only in terms of how to move them, but also how to process and study them. Paleoanthropologists and students generally only have a few new hominid fossil elements to work with from any given site at any given time. Having dozens of elements is unusual. Totals in the hundreds have generally taken years or decades to reach. To come out of three weeks of excavation with more than a thousand hominid fossils is unheard of in Southern Africa.

Handling all this material will require the creation of new systems, new forms of collaboration, and new opportunities for young and up-and-coming scientists. Lee Berger and his team of senior scientists are developing such a plan now.

The South African town of Krugersdorp is also about to see some changes. For starters, the gas station nearest the site will probably not run out of ice as quickly. The super-store that sells everything from permanent markers to rocking horses and comically oversized wicker baskets will probably not move as many small plastic lidded boxes (in which the scientists store teeth and other small fossil pieces). Just this morning Lee and I made a run and picked up another 402 of them.

Lee Berger totes a sack of 402 plastic containers to the Science tent like the paleoanthropological version of Santa Claus. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The local pubs might feel our absence as well. (With so many hominid fossils coming out, we had a few occasions to celebrate.)

The friendly and interested locals might even take note. The second time I went to a nearby church I was greeted by name and the old Irish priest fished out the quote he’d told me about a week earlier. “Ya know it was just St. Albert’s Day” he told me. “Patron of scientists!”

And of course things will finally return somewhat to normal for the extended family that lives on the land where the caves are. Polina, the enterprising young woman in charge laughed when I told her she’d be glad to see us go because of all the noise and commotion we caused. “Just get me one of those hats,” she told me, pointing to my official Rising Star Expedition baseball cap. Having been pretty thrilled on day one when Lee gave me mine, I could appreciate her enthusiasm.

And now I myself am already on a plane bound for Washington DC.

At take-off I was treated to the sight of one last South African lightning storm like we enjoyed many times at camp, only this time from strange new angles and heights that alter your sense of scale and turn a cinematic heavenly display into a raucous performance at a theater-in-the-round.

Ashley Kruger, who ran the top-side part of the scanning process caught this bolt whose brightness caused the horizontal streaks at the top of the image. (Photo by Ashley Kruger)
Ashley Kruger, who ran the top-side part of the scanning process caught this bolt whose brightness caused the horizontal streaks at the top of the image. (Photo by Ashley Kruger)

Now that I write that, it echoes deeply the experience of this expedition.

Even working for the National Geographic Society, most of the exploration, research, and discovery I read and write about happens at a distance. To be on-site long-term at a project like this is rare.

The fact that I was right in amongst the storm reporting the discovery as it occurred is a testament not only to the importance of this find, but to Lee Berger and team’s approach to scientific research, and to NG’s dedication to making everyone a part of exploration.

This year has marked the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Society, and we’ve been celebrating it as the beginning of “A New Age of Exploration.”

Having seen this discovery (just hundreds of meters from other major paleoanthro sites) go from “maybe a partial skeleton” to one of the biggest caches of early hominid fossils known, I feel a rush of excitement to realize that new age is more than just a nice phrase.

With the scope of the discovery, the potential for more like it, and Lee Berger’s vision for a new era of collaboration among scientists in this field, it seems serendipitous that this cave system had the name “Rising Star.”

Even with this three-week expedition ending, the story of this site and of what it may tell us about how we became human is truly just beginning.

In the coming months this blog will continue to serve as a platform for news and stories from the project and its many team members.

The filmmakers who have been recording it all as it happened will be preparing a television documentary for National Geographic and NOVA to air around fall of 2014.

It’s a long flight from Johannesburg to Washington DC, so while I’ve been flying and writing, the crew back in South Africa has probably sat around the campfire, slept cozily in the tents, downed some coffee and cereal before one of the last morning briefings, and begun the breakdown I mentioned at the start.

Soon they’ll have it all packed up and aside from a few new footpaths worn into the winding grassy patches among the exposed rocks and stones, the site will look much as it did at the start if the month, before we arrived.

Thirty meters below however, things have changed dramatically. Bones that had lain in silence and darkness for eons have returned to the light of day and begun to speak of hominid lives lived long ago.

And already, more bones are peeking through the fine sediment, just waiting for the return of the Homo sapiens so curious about what they can reveal.

Read All Posts From the Rising Star Expedition

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.
  • pat johns/shantidasi

    I am Alia Gurtov’s grandmother and this has been so exciting, reading daily of all that the Rising Star Expedition has brought forth!!! I am so proud of you ALL with kudos to National Geographic!

    I cannot wait to hear more as it is available…

    Many Blessings,

    pat johns

  • Linda Kruger

    This is beyond exciting! I am AshIey Kruger’s mom. I am in awe of the passion and dedication of this team. Thank you to Andrew Howley from NG for keeping me updated – I never missed a daily Newswatch. Bravo to you all, I’ll be watching with keen interest as the discovery unfolds.

  • Geraldene von Dombois

    I have been following this exciting expedition since it kicked off and broke news and am in awe of the team of experts. What an exciting discovery – well done for recovering so many new fossils!

  • Dave

    Beautifully put, Andrew. As on of the cavers I have been part of it all – including this bitter-sweet feeling now this first adventure is over.
    I don’t know when the next phase will happen but I do know there are plenty more fossils waiting to be discovered!
    Keep the reports coming, Andrew, and stay strong – you caved so well!

  • David Morrison

    I am a biochemistry doctoral student and am studying less than 60 km away from the site and am so excited about this amazing discovery happening right here in South Africa. I really would love to know how much more they can excavate. I am even thinking about registering at Wits to find out more about the project.

    Best of luck with the reconstruction and identifications. We are eagerly awaiting more updates.

  • Cave Girl

    I know we are lucky to have the cave in our back yard but I somehow feel that there is going to be something missing every time I go visit the site and it’s not going to be the bones  the friendships made on site with all the different members of the Rising Star Expedition crew below and above ground will remain one of the greatest highlights of my life and I am very humbled and privileged that I was able in a very small way to be part of this GREAT adventure. Lee with his ready smile and willingness to answer each and every question, the caver/scientists known as “underground astronauts” were really fantastic – all with friendly smiles and just as willing to share their knowledge with us mere mortals with a keen interest in the cave and very little knowledge of what a hominid was let alone the importance of their fossils and the importance of each and every bone that came out the cave no matter how big or small. Watching the activities in the science tent make me want to rush off and enroll at university.
    The Girls enthusiasm for their work and for science was touching and infectious and I hope that what they did and how they went about doing it will encourage many more girls to enter the predominant “boy’s playground”.
    To the rest of my caving club members and everyone from the caving community that were involved THANKS! You did us as a club really proud!! JUST next time Rick / Steve PLEASE find the bones in a more accessible place 
    Andrew, thanks for all your blogs – on the days I could not be there you kept the excitement alive.
    I am looking forward to staying in touch through future blogs.

  • Billy Morris

    Thanks Andrew for your wonderful stories, photos, and videos! You’ve kept us on the edge of our seats, waiting for more…

    Loved seeing your pic in the cave too!

  • Betty Zane Morris

    I am the grandmother of Hannah Morris, one of the underground astronauts. Your reports of the accomplishments and activities of the group have been eagerly sought every day since the expedition began. Thanks to you and National Geographic for making them available. I prayed each day for safety for all in this dangerous undertaking and this was granted. Congratulations to all who had a part in this significant project and I’ll certainly look forward to reports of continuing exploration (I’m assuming that will happen). Lee Berger and all–Job well done!!

  • Sandra Morris

    I am the mother of Hannah Morris.
    This has been one of the most exciting times of my life. Thank you, Andrew, and National Geographic, for facilitating the sharing of this expedition as it was happening. Well done, everyone. I can’t wait for more developments. So many questions yet to be answered!

  • John S. Mead

    As a Biology teacher and avid follower of the Rising Star Expedition( http://bluelionphotos.blogspot.com/2013/11/rising-star-expedition.html) your ability to share the great details of this exploration has meant a great deal to both me and my students. While things have “closed up” for now, my students still ask me questions and shoot hypotheses my way each day. Much of what I can help them with comes from the details you have shared here. While the scientific openness of this expedition is amazing, the fact that my middle & high school students have felt almost as if they were “on site” is due is large part to how you painted the picture of the Rising Star events! Kudos to you!

  • Leon Van Bunder

    For me, the most plausible explanation of these bodies on this location is a CO intoxication of a complete family.
    Peaple were used to make open fire, but not in a closed room and did not know the danger of CO intoxication.
    At that time, there were no electric lamps, so they made fire to see in that cave. If the slept with a small open fire to keep fire for making light the next day they were probably all intoxicated while sleeping.
    The very narrow entrance is also a reason for this explanation.
    This explains the presence of adults women and children.
    This is more plausible than all the other hypothesis.

    Kind regards
    Leon Van Bunder.

  • Mike Harrington

    Were they were dead or alive when they went into the cave? Was the cave completely dark? Were they a family group separated from their mature guardian males who became trapped by large predators at the cave entrance and waiting for a rescue that never came? If they were essentially plant eaters then they would not have resorted to cannabalism. Was there any evidence at all of rudimentary stone tools? Maybe they got lost and ended up in the wrong cave and couldn’t get out in the dark. Any sign of bodily injuries? More questions than answers – intriguing.

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