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Remarkably Well Preserved Hominid Skeleton Emerges

“We have a mandible. We’ve seen the skull. And there are more bones. Lots of them.”

With his team of “underground astronauts” safely ascending out of a deep and narrow cave with hominid fossil in hand, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger is ecstatic.

The sun is setting and streaking the South African sky with layers of pink clouds, seeming to join the spirit of celebration at the site. With this first fossil in hand, and clearly much more still below, we’re witnessing a particularly rare moment in the study of human evolution.

From the start, Berger emphasized that the primary goal of the expedition was the safety of everyone entering the cave. So there was more than just joy at the fossil recovery as Hannah Morris and the team emerged with the first fossil. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

From the start, Berger emphasized that the primary goal of the expedition was the safety of everyone entering the cave. So there was more than just joy at the fossil recovery as Hannah Morris and the team emerged with the first fossil. Soundman Andre Feldmann helps record the moment for posterity. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

How Rare Is It?

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.

It’s not clear what species these fossils belong to, but with so many bones simply lying on the ground in the deep chamber, whatever species they belong to it will add an incalculable amount of new information (and inevitably stir up a comparable amount of debate).

The weather today was warm and sunny. Then the first team entered the cave, and as though acknowledging that something big was about to go down, nature roared with thunder and rained for 20 minutes. I kid you not. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The weather today was warm and sunny. Then the first team entered the cave, and as though acknowledging that something big was about to go down, nature roared with thunder and rained for 20 minutes. I kid you not. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The Entry

At 1:30pm South Africa time, Lee gathered everyone outside the main entrance to the cave. Cables for the cameras, lights, and communication lines that cavers have laid over the past three days drew the eye and lead the way into the darkness.

Steve Tucker, one of the original discoverers was still in the cave adjusting the final lights. Further in, Rick Hunter (the other discoverer) awaited the first scientists to make their way to the final chamber.

Left to right, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus, and A. sediba. Or actually, it might have been cavers Steve Tucker, Gerrie Pretorius, and Andre Doussy. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Left to right, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus, and A. sediba. Or actually, it might have been cavers Steve Tucker, Gerrie Pretorius, and Andre Doussy. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Leading the way was Lee Berger’s cave-loving son Matthew, who had been in the cave before and placed a flag to mark the mandible so the caver/scientists would know what they were looking at as soon as they arrived.

“Advance Scientists Team 1,” consisted of Becca Peixotto, Marina Elliott, and Hannah Morris. They placed flags at every visible hominid fossil on the ground. Then they waved the clothes-iron-like state-of-the-art Arctech 3D white light scanner to record the site exactly as it appeared before they touched a single fossil.

Almost Like Being There

Back at the surface, Lee and the rest of the team watched a large monitor showing a grid of nine cameras positioned throughout the cave. “Matthew has passed ‘the postbox’,” Lee announced as he noted the time it took. His running tally helped create much more accurate estimates of how long each stage of the process would take going forward.

Two of the "underground astronauts" watch the video monitors with Berger to keep track of their teammates' progress in the cave. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Two of the “underground astronauts” watch the video monitors with Berger to keep track of their teammates’ progress in the cave. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The cameras showed the trickiest passages of the cave, as well as the fossils lying on the ground. Calling down over the phone-style communication lines, Lee had the first entrants adjust one of the cameras, then adjust the light shining on it. “That’s it, that’s the skull,” he said.

When they said “skull,” I for one pictured an australopithecine Yorick placed upon the ground. What we actually saw was a white crescent shaped cross section in the dark earth. Everyone else seemed to recognize it instantly.

Apparently to anthropologists C is for cranium.

The Third Dimension

Eventually in one of the Brady-Bunch windows we could see Marina  begin to scan. Half an hour later she emerged from the cave, with a hard drive containing the files of the scan.

The people in the command center buzzed with excitement as the files were loaded on to the computer, and on another giant monitor in front of us all, the floor of the cave was reconstructed in microscopic detail, dirt, rocks, and hominid fossils all. The large, clean, recognizable mandible was a main point of focus, though there were large pieces of limb bones as well.

Carnival-like 0ohs and aahs at the techological wizardry betrayed the incredible scientific value of these scans. Decades from now, when others study these bones, they will be able to examine the site as it was from the beginning and could learn from details scientists today don’t even know to be looking for.

Caver/scientist Katherine Eaves teared up over the excitement, anticipation, and thankfulness of being here. Neanderthal expert-turned-early hominid researcher Steve Churchill was just all the more antsy to have the actual fossils in hand. “I want it in 3D that I can touch,” he said with a grin.

The Patient Arrives

Not long after, he had his wish. Gently unwrapping the bubble wrap Becca had protected the fossil in, Steve held the mandible of an early hominid. It occurred to me that in a way, it has not been long at all since that bone was in the mouth of a living thing.

Steve and the other scientists moved slowly, thinking a lot, speaking softly, with a sense of awe, excitement, and wheels-turning in their heads. It was Homo sapiens the “wise or thinking man” in all his glory, looking at something interesting he’d found.

After waiting for hours as the cavers made their way to the fossil chamber and back, Steve Churchill finally lays eyes on the newly discovered homind mandible. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

After waiting for hours as the cavers made their way to the fossil chamber and back, Steve Churchill finally lays eyes on the newly discovered homind mandible. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Steve’s voice sounded like a field surgeon’s as he identified the part of the jaw and the teeth present, gave it a catalog number, and began describing its points of interest to his tent full of colleagues.

Next Steps

Now everyone is sitting around, winding down from the excitement, enjoying the last bits of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and basking in the glow of laptop monitors showing the day’s photos and footage.

The sun down, the hominid mandible safely recovered and stored for the night, Lee Berger gathers the team to express thrill and pride in pulling off such a rare feat. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The sun down, the hominid mandible safely recovered and stored for the night, Lee Berger gathers the team to express thrill and pride in pulling off such a rare feat. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

6:3o in the morning tomorrow, we’ll have a briefing and the underground astronauts will get back to work.

Within hours, from the floor of a cave, through tight squeezes, and over rocky obstacles, more bones will be carried out. Laid out in the science tent, they will retake their original shape and begin a new chapter in the study of our earliest hominid relatives.

 

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Comments

  1. natalie
    springhill f l hernando county
    November 12, 2013, 7:40 pm

    please pubish pictures when you know more. thank

  2. El Gabilon
    November 12, 2013, 5:55 pm

    Everyone seems happy about the discovery. Still we will be cremated so this does not disturb our eternal “rest”. Perhaps we will have our ashes sent into outer space for some future alien to discover. We would of course include a nude photo of ourself so they will know what they are looking at. Is nothing sacred?

  3. Leonardo V.
    Brazil
    November 12, 2013, 12:03 pm

    Only those who are completely delivered to such achievement as noble as this know the meaning of a hug like that.

  4. Entesar
    Kuwait
    November 12, 2013, 3:48 am

    are you going to publish pictures of the Hominid ?