New sediba fossils found; excavation to be broadcast live from Maropeng
We caught up with Wits Professor Lee Berger in Shanghai, where he was announcing an exciting new fossil discovery that will be excavated live in a “studio-lab” at Maropeng today.
You have announced that you have just found a large piece of rock containing fossils. What’s inside the rock?
There are things we know and things we don’t know. What we know is the left side of the jaw of Karabo [the type specimen of Australopithecus sediba] is in that rock because part of it is sticking out of the edge of the rock and clicks with the left hand side of his jaw that we already have – something we only discovered when we took the rock to the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital to be scanned with new scanning technology. There are also pieces of fibula, ribs, and what appears to be a complete femur, post-cranial bones, parts of the thorax, vertebrae and possibly hands and feet – there’s a lot!
How big is the rock?
It’s about 1m x 80cm x 70cm, so it’s quite large.
How many individual specimens of Australopithecus sediba have you found at Malapa?
There are six all together so far.
How did you discover that there were hominid bones in this particular piece of rock?
This block of calcified clastic matrix (“clastic” means it was fossilised in a wet or muddy environment) has been in my lab for three years and is one of about 2000 pieces of rock we have that we have removed from Malapa. These rocks were created by blasts in the caves by lime miners in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. This was the first piece of rock we examined. My wife, Jackie Smilg, is a radiologist, and is conducting her PhD on the CT scanning of fossil material embedded in rock. We took the rock to the Charlotte Maxege Hospital and scanned it in a state-of-the-art CT scanner, and were able to peer inside at what it held. This in itself is a brand new area of science.
So you hit the jackpot first time?
Yes! But I think we’re going to hit the jackpot many times. This is not the first find from Malapa and it won’t be the last.
How old are these fossils?
They’re between 1.977 and 1.98-million years old. They’ve been dated using uranium lead and palaeo-magnetic dating techniques.
You will be building a laboratory at Maropeng, where this and other excavations will happen. What is your vision for this?
We are going to be broadcasting the fossil excavations live to a few major museums in the world, and visitors to these museums will have the ability to interact with the scientists, and possibly even operate robotic cameras in the lab. We need state-of-the-art technology; the lab needs to be a studio. That’s where National Geographic comes in – they’re going to assist us in designing this remarkable lab-studio.
Imagine a state-of-the-art lab that is hyper-clean, there are preparation tables, state-of-the-art microscopic cameras, and audio-visual equipment recording the excavation from different angles. This type of scientific lab is what we would have built anyway, but now we’re allowing the world to eavesdrop on what we’re doing.
I have always dreamed of sharing the excitement we get from making a discovery with the public. I needed a time capsule to do it, and now we have one!