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The Skull Man Arrives

Batten Hatches
A foreboding command sat at the bottom of today’s schedule at the morning briefing. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

After a day off for a field trip to other Cradle of Humankind sites yesterday, this morning, the expedition is back on in full swing.

“Batten hatches,” was the last item on the whiteboard at this morning’s briefing.

Most days by 6:30am the sun is baking us already, but today by 5:30 clouds had rolled in and the temperature was locked down to a midnight coolness. A healthy storm seems to be a-brewing.

In what has become a daily tradition, Lee scribbled a new hashtag on the top if the board. Today’s is #BFF – big fossil finding. With the delicate skull out of the way, the team is ready for near industrial scale bone removal. They have accordingly headed up the hill to the cavers’ tent to prepare for excavations.

Meanwhile at the Lab

It may not be in one piece, but the skull is out out of the cave and in pieces that fit together. Slowly drying and gaining stability and strength, parts of the temporal, occipital, parietal, frontal, and zygomatic elements await reunification.

A generalized hominid skull with labels indicating the regions for which pieces have been recovered sp far on the Rising Star Expedition. (Illustration by Andrew Howley)
A generalized hominid skull with labels indicating the regions for which pieces have been recovered sp far on the Rising Star Expedition. (Illustration by Andrew Howley)

To that end, our skull expert has arrived. Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A & M University and the Evolutionary Studies Institute, complete with cropped hair, quick humor, and sleeve tattoos is intrigued. Until arriving, all he’d seen of the fossils was an early photo of the mandible, still covered with a fair amount of sediment.

Darryl de Ruiter arrived on site and immediately assumed an important responsibility: amping up the frequency of walkie-talkie calls and the colorful character of call-signs. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Darryl de Ruiter arrived on site and immediately assumed an important responsibility: amping up the frequency of walkie-talkie calls and the colorful character of call-signs. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Speaking to him just after he’d had his first look at the skull pieces, Darryl explained that mandibles, while often used to identify a species, are actually highly variable and so can be misleading. Even within living populations, they can take on many shapes and sizes.

For him, it’s the cranium that holds the more consistent shapes and reliable clues, because it has to integrate so many different systems.

While the mandible is used mostly just for chewing and vocalizing, the cranium not only serves in chewing, but also in housing sensitive organs of sight, smell, and hearing, the brain itself, and the nerves, muscles, blood vessels, and passageways that serve them. Each part must fit together and function smoothly along with the others. Once there is an arrangement that works, there are a lot of developmental and selective pressures that keep it pretty from varying much from individual to individual.

Looking at all of it together, he’s able to begin developing a much clearer picture than he could from just one element.

Others also like to consider the hands, feet, clavicle, etc., but to this skull man, the post-cranial skeleton is “just a way to move a head around.”

Rising Star in Perspective

Two weeks since the beginning of this expedition, this number and diversity of skeletal elements seems to be Rising Star’s greatest potential contribution to the paleoanthropological record.

“Even [for] the best known species of early hominid, there are pieces missing,” Lee Berger said this weekend.

“What is exceptional about these fossils is we already have parts of the anatomy that have almost never been seen before in any species, and certainly not in this kind of abundance.”

With the total number of recovered hominid fossil pieces now over 300, it is clear that this cave system will add considerably to the body of material scientists have for analyzing and comparing any early hominid fossil, and the team is dedicated to getting that material out there for all researchers to use.

Lee and his team of experts have been tweeting regularly about the progress of the expedition (see module to the right) and are formulating a plan for an open and rapid description of the fossils once they are all out of the ground. They hope this will be just as important of a contribution to their field.

Read All Posts from the Rising Star Expedition

Comments

  1. Mike Raath
    Randolph, New Jersey, USA
    November 19, 2013, 9:50 am

    Hey Darryl (“Skull Man”), what’s with all that blue ink around your wrists? Didn’t your mama never teach you to wash your hands?? Welcome back to the Highveld!

    Mike

  2. John Whillier
    Cradle of Humankind
    November 19, 2013, 6:13 am

    3-D printing could allow any fossil to be sent anywhere for analysis by anyone. But its much more fun to be on site.