When paleoanthropologist Lee Berger began planning the expedition, he had a hunch that this dig would stand apart. He had learned from spelunkers in South Africa that there was a cache of what appeared to be human bones in a cave outside Johannesburg. Given what Berger knew of the area, he suspected there was an ancient hominid skull down there waiting to be unearthed, maybe more.
Early surveys of the site confirmed his hunch. There was indeed a skull buried down there, a remarkable find in itself. But there was also more. Here’s Andrew Howley, reporting from the site for National Geographic NewsWatch:
For all the hundreds of fossils of early human ancestors that have been discovered, there are only a few examples of pieces of skull and pieces of the rest of the body clearly associated with each other. Lucy is one. Turkana Boy is another. Australopithecus sediba has two.
And now there’s another.
“This just doesn’t happen,” Berger told Howley.
The site took days to prepare. After the tents and equipment were set up, Lee and his team of nimble scientists began by photographing and scanning the cave to create a high-resolution 3D model. After those were analyzed, the digging could begin. Initial excavations surpassed even Berger’s high expectations. There wasn’t just the fossilized bones of one individual down there, but the remains of two or more. Such discoveries are rare.
Parts of the cave system are extraordinarily tight, so small, in fact, that Berger recruited scientists based not only on their knowledge of the field, but also their physical size. He didn’t want to risk anyone getting stuck, especially since it takes about 40 minutes to reach the farthest chamber.
Berger’s team hasn’t brought the skull to the surface yet, but they’re expected to do so in the next day or so. In the meantime, crews of scientists continue to bring bag after bag of fossils out of the cave. As the bones arrive, a separate team is working feverishly to catalog and tentatively classify them. From the volume, though, it’s clear that the Rising Star Expedition, as it’s being called, will provide anthropologists with years, maybe decades, of data to sift through.
Check back here at NOVA Next and at National Geographic NewsWatch for more updates on the dig.