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First Peek Into Cave System Holding New Hominid Fossils

Gerrie "The Plug" stands and listens to the morning briefing along with scientist Hannah Morris, and cavers Rick Hunter and Steve Tucker who found the fossils, and Steve's cousin Andre Doussy inbetween. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Gerrie “The Plug” stands and listens to the morning briefing along with scientist Hannah Morris, and cavers Rick Hunter and Steve Tucker who found the fossils, and Steve’s cousin Andre Doussy in between. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

By 6:00am, the sun is shining, everyone in camp is up and getting breakfast and gathering for the morning briefing from expedition leader Lee Berger.

Today’s assignments were clear: set up more shower tents, get the gear ready, and finish installing the lights. The lights are going into the cave. Deep in the cave are the recently discovered hominid fossils whose recovery is the goal of this Rising Star Expedition.

Along with the team of six caver/scientists are their full-blown caver leaders, including Rick Hunter and Steve Tucker who made the discovery as part of Lee’s exploration team.

The actual excavation will involve tight squeezes, long hours, and painstaking recording with some of the most advanced 3D scanners around. If those fail, there’s a very reliable Plan B: “The backup for our Star Trek tri-corder is a pencil,” joked Lee at the science briefing.

Caver/scientist Hannah Morris admires the skylight in a part of the cave once explored and even blasted by miners. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Caver/scientist Hannah Morris admires the skylight in a part of the cave once explored and even blasted by miners. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The day before, the team had gotten their first taste of the cave’s interior.

Staying within the first 50 meters or so, everyone was comfortably walking upright, watching out for the uneven ground, but otherwise moving with the kind of bipedal dexterity that is our heritage from whatever species of early hominid once lived nearby.

Figures and shadows move through the largest opening to the cave, where caving leader Pedro Boshoff has been sleeping. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Figures and shadows move through the largest opening to the cave, where caving leader Pedro Boshoff has been sleeping. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Throughout our time at the site, there have been several moments that seemed to reverberate with echoes of those early ancestors.

It started with finding that the best hammer for the tent pegs was a hunk of rock best wielded like a Capuchin monkey cracking nuts.

When building a wooden platform to level the ground and provide a safe surface for the technical equipment tent, we gathered large stones from nearby and stacked them into a basic foundation just as people have done from recent times to build houses and the earliest times even just to build a fire ring (admittedly we later replaced it with more efficient wooden legs).

At one point, coming down the hill from the upper camp, I passed three of the little girls who live with their extended family on the property. They were amusing themselves by taking rocks and cracking them against each other. I was kind of proud of how far we’ve come to see 5-year-olds doing something that was at one point the pinnacle of primate technical achievement.

Later on, while waiting for my smartphone to charge at the recently-started generator, I decided to explore a bit and climbed to the top  of the hill behind the cave entrances. I had a beautiful panorama of the campsite, and could see people working away on setting up tents and other tasks. They looked small, but they looked like modern people. Then, across the field another figure caught my eye. This one looked like Sasquatch, or as I quickly thought and preferred, any kind of bipedal primate swinging his arms and walking through the long African grass. Further away, silhouetted, and in form-hiding coveralls, he was simplified into that basic form which has tread these trails for a long, long time.

With these kinds of thoughts bipedally running through my head, I’ve been getting mentally geared up for the big moments to come, when the bones are removed from the cave and we get a sense of just what this discovery will mean.

The six brilliant and bold caver/scientists on the other hand are gearing up literally. Putting batteries in their headlamps, adjusting the fit of their helmets and harnesses, and in one case even hemming her new works suit to fit her able-to-fit-in-places-so-small-you-couldn’t-even-lose-your-keys frame.

Once properly suited up they posed for a team photo. Looking so spiffy. So ready for adventure. So clean.

For now.

Donning their caving kit for the first time, the six scientists and their recorder pose for a quick group shot. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Donning their caving kit for the first time, the six scientists and their recorder pose for a quick group shot. For future comparison, notice how clean the suits are at this point. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

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Comments

  1. Emma Pearse
    South Africa swartkranze
    November 9, 2013, 4:23 pm

    Hi I am 17 years old and litteraly live 2km down the dirt road. On my way to school and back my family and I noticed your camp site. I have been living here all my life and it was obviously an odd site. After doing some research I found out what was going on and I was absolutely amazed :) I have always been fascinated with archeology and this discovery , being right on my doorstep has blown me away … anyways please feel free to drop my mom an email Kazifarm@mweb.co.za .. maybe you and the crew could come for a swim and a braai.. I hope you’re expedition goes well and don’t be afraid of the jackals they wont hurt you.