SA scientists to unearth fossils live online

16 July 2012

South African scientists will share the country’s latest fossil discovery with the world when the uncovering of these remains is transmitted live on the internet from a laboratory studio in Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind.

Professor Lee Berger from the Wits Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg announced the plan to uncover the fossils live in Shanghai, China last week.

Berger was visiting China as part of a South African delegation promoting trade, business and tourism relations between the two competitive city regions, Gauteng and Shanghai.

‘The most complete early human ancestor skeleton’

The skeleton housed in the rock is believed to be the remains of early human ancestor Australopithecus sediba, known as ‘Karabo’, which was discovered by Berger at the Malapa Site in the Cradle of Humankind in 2009.

The rock containing the fossils was discovered almost three years ago, but lay in the Wits laboratories until early last month, when Justin Mukanku from the Institute for Human Evolution spotted a tooth in the rock. It was then scanned in a state-of-the- art CT scanner, which revealed more bones.

“We have discovered parts of a jaw and critical aspects of the body including what appear to be a complete femur (thigh bone), ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements, some never before seen in such completeness in the human fossil record,” Berger said in a statement.

“This discovery will almost certainly make Karabo the most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered. We are obviously quite excited as it appears that we now have some of the most critical and complete remains of the skeleton, albeit encased in solid rock.”

Encouraging ‘open access to science’

To faciliate open access to science and public participation, Wits, the Gauteng provincial government and national government announced that, for the first time in history, the process of exploring and uncovering these fossil remains would be conducted live, captured on video, and conveyed to the world in real time.

“This will allow members of the public and the scientific community to share in the unfolding discovery in an unprecedented way,” Wits said in a statement.

A laboratory studio, designed in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, will be built at the Maropeng Visitor Centre in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

It will allow the public to view the preparation of this skeleton live if they visit Maropeng, or live on the internet. “The laboratory studio will be also linked to laboratories at Wits University and the Malapa site,” Berger said.

Virtual outposts

Access to the laboratory studio will not be limited only to visitors to the Cradle of Humankind and the internet. “We intend to create virtual ‘outposts’ in major partner museums around the world,” he said.

“These outposts will allow visitors to these partner museums the chance to interact with scientists in real time in a way we simply could not conceive of a few years ago.

“It is anticipated that the laboratory and virtual infrastructure will be built within a year, expanding our ambitious tourism and smart province infrastructure programme.”

Negotiations have begun with the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom and the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

“We have already donated casts of Australopithecus sediba to these three institutions, among others,” said Berger.

“It has also just been confirmed that one of the virtual outposts will be hosted in the new Shanghai Natural History Museum due to open later this year.”

SAinfo reporter