Uncovering South Africa’s latest fossil find

8 November 2013

Excavations will soon begin on a new site at the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa’s Gauteng province to investigate a find of “significant” fossils suspected to be those of our very early human ancestors.

Professor Lee Berger, a research professor in Human Evolution from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, will direct the expedition at the site, dubbed “Rising Star Cave”.

Berger is best known for the discovery of Australopithecus sediba at the Malapa site at the Cradle – one of the most significant palaeoanthropological discoveries in recent times.

The Cradle of Humankind is a World Heritage site situated about 40 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg.

Berger said at the launch of the new expedition this week that “significant” fossils had been found in a chamber deep underground.

“We do not know as yet what species of hominin we have found, and we will not speculate,” Berger said. “Our aim is to get the fossils out carefully, study them, compare them to other fossil material from around the world and then proceed to analyse and describe them.

“This is part of the scientific process, and we are hoping to publish our findings – if all goes well – late in 2014.”

The key challenge is the size and location of the cave: about 30 metres underground, it has a very small opening through which only slightly built people can fit.

Berger used social media platforms to call for “tiny and small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills”.

From a list of 57 qualified applicants, Berger selected six scientists. “These are highly trained scientists with caving experience from the US, Canada and Australia who are currently in South Africa preparing for the excavation,” he said.

The excavation and scientific analysis that follows will be featured in a National Geographic/NOVA television special.

Members of the Speleological Exploration of South Africa will assist the expedition.

Wits University and SAinfo reporter