Women cavers on underground fossil hunt

The six scientist-cavers who will go deep underground the Cradle of Humankind to recover the human fossil remains from Rising Star Cave. From left, Hannah Morris, Marina Elliott, Becca Peixotto, Elen Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov and Lindsay Eaves.

Lee Berger, the leader of the expedition, introduces the international team to the media on 6 November 2013.
(Images: University of the Witwatersrand)

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An international team of six scientists – all women, and all recruited on social media – are set to explore a recently discovered cave deep under South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind, some 40 kilometres north of Johannesburg, to recover the fossil remains of an ancient human species that may shed new light on our origins.

Named the Rising Star Cave, the chamber was discovered by exploration team leader Pedro Boshoff and his two assistants, Steve Tucker and Rick Hunter, of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Venturing 30 vertical metres under the surface of the Cradle, they were able to look into an almost inaccessible opening, where, scattered on the cave floor, they found a cache of significant hominin fossils.

The expedition to the cave will be directed by paleoscientist Lee Berger, a research professor in human evolution at the Evolutionary Studies Institute. Berger is best known for the 2010 discovery, also in the Cradle, of a previously unknown 1.9-million-year old ancient hominin named Australopithecus sediba. Earlier this year he was named National Geographic explorer-in-residence.

Announcing the Rising Star expedition on 6 November, Berger said the fossils in the chamber were found as recently as September 2013, in the deepest recesses of the network of limestone caves under the Cradle. The Cradle of Humankind, a Unesco World Heritage site, has yielded 40% of all the world’s known ancient human fossils.

‘Extraordinary, exciting’

“It’s fair to say no discovery has ever been make like this in Southern Africa, in this kind of context,” he said. “And, perhaps on the continent of Africa – and almost anywhere in the world – in this kind of context. It is an underground discovery, something like 30 metres below the surface, in an extraordinary situation. That is part of the excitement we’re dealing with.”

The first step in the Rising Star project is to get the fossils out of the cave and into the laboratory for thorough study, before any pronouncement can be made.

“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.”

Getting the specimens out of the ground is the problem. The chamber is not only deep underground, but it can only be accessed through a small opening – any explorer trying to get through it would have to be tiny, with a chest size of 18 centimetres or less.

Small, specialised spelunkers

So Berger called on his social network on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to help him find “small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, paleontological and excavation skills”.

Within days he had a list of 57 qualified candidates, from which six scientists were chosen for the underground expedition, all of them women.

“These are highly trained scientists with caving experience from the US, Canada and Australia who are currently in South Africa preparing for the excavation,” Berger said.

All of the scientists are Masters graduates, and four of them PhD candidates. Two have worked in South Africa before.

Alia Noelle Gurtov is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, US. She has field experience from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania as well as with Professor Francis Thackeray from the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa.

Katherine Lindsay Eaves is a PhD candidate in biological anthropology at the University of Iowa in the US. She has worked on important bone collections such as the Raymond Dart Collection at Wits University and the Australopithecus africanus fossils at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa.

Marina Elliott is a PhD candidate in biological anthropology and osteology at the Simon Fraser University in Burnaby in British Columbia, Canada. Becca Peixotto is an archaeologist from Silver Springs in Montgomery County, Maryland, US, who holds a Masters degree in public anthropology from the American University in Washington, DC.

Elen Maree Feuerriegel is a PhD candidate in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. Hannah Morris holds a Masters degree in Anthropology from the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, US.

“Only a limited number of people will be allowed to the access-restricted site, as one of my key priorities is the safety of our scientists and researchers,” Berger said. “We also have to do the best that we can under the circumstances to get these fossils out of the cave, through a complex recovery process.”

Members of the Speleological Exploration Club of South Africa will support the expedition.

Wits University and the Cradle

The Cradle of Humankind is made up of the fossil hominid sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and surrounding areas. It was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999.

Wits University has a long association with the Cradle, through scientific discoveries and research. The university owns and manages important fossil sites there, and Wits scientists’ contributions to some of its most extraordinary fossil finds have made South Africa a world leader in paleosciences research.

“The University is home to the richest collections of hominid fossils in the world, and discoveries made by Wits scientists in the Cradle of Humankind are some of the most significant in the paleosciences record,” said Adam Habib, vice-chancellor and principal of Wits.

“Professor Berger and his team have already added to this valuable collection with the discovery of Australopithecus sediba, and the latest find to be excavated by the Rising Star Expedition will once again demonstrate the tremendous promise of the paleosciences on the continent.”

The expedition will be supported by the National Geographic Society, and is Berger’s first project as the society’s explorer-in-residence.

“This project is the essence of exploration, and we are thrilled to support Lee Berger and his team,” said Terry Garcia, executive vice president for missions at National Geographic. “We look forward to sharing the project results across the globe.”

The excavation and subsequent scientific analysis will be the feature of a National Geographic television special. Updates will be posted on a special National Geographic blog.