Final Day of Excavations

  • November 27, 2013 | Andrew Howley

After three weeks of deep-cave hominid fossil recovery, the Rising Star Expedition has wrapped on its final day of excavations.

The caver/scientists known as “underground astronauts” will return Wednesday to complete the 3D scans of the entire fossil chamber, walls and all. They will be aided by the caving support team as they remove the hi-tech equipment that has made this NASA-like mission possible.

There are 17 sleeping tents, plus the storage tent and the larger mess hall, Cavers tent, Science tent, and Command Center to disassemble, pack, and ship out.

There are also the more than 1200 cataloged hominid fossil elements to transfer to Wits University.

Becca Peixotto, Lee Berger, and John Hawks watch excitedly as the caver/scientists excavate one of the final fossils of the expedition. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Becca Peixotto, Lee Berger, and John Hawks watch excitedly as the caver/scientists excavate one of the final fossils of the expedition. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Plans are now being made for how to handle all these new fossils, not only in terms of how to move them, but also how to process and study them. Paleoanthropologists and students generally only have a few new hominid fossil elements to work with from any given site at any given time. Having dozens of elements is unusual. Totals in the hundreds have generally taken years or decades to reach. To come out of three weeks of excavation with more than a thousand hominid fossils is unheard of in Southern Africa.

Handling all this material will require the creation of new systems, new forms of collaboration, and new opportunities for young and up-and-coming scientists. Lee Berger and his team of senior scientists are developing such a plan now.

The South African town of Krugersdorp is also about to see some changes. For starters, the gas station nearest the site will probably not run out of ice as quickly. The super-store that sells everything from permanent markers to rocking horses and comically oversized wicker baskets will probably not move as many small plastic lidded boxes (in which the scientists store teeth and other small fossil pieces). Just this morning Lee and I made a run and picked up another 402 of them.

Lee Berger totes a sack of 402 plastic containers to the Science tent like the paleoanthropological version of Santa Claus. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The local pubs might feel our absence as well. (With so many hominid fossils coming out, we had a few occasions to celebrate.)

The friendly and interested locals might even take note. The second time I went to a nearby church I was greeted by name and the old Irish priest fished out the quote he’d told me about a week earlier. “Ya know it was just St. Albert’s Day” he told me. “Patron of scientists!”

And of course things will finally return somewhat to normal for the extended family that lives on the land where the caves are. Polina, the enterprising young woman in charge laughed when I told her she’d be glad to see us go because of all the noise and commotion we caused. “Just get me one of those hats,” she told me, pointing to my official Rising Star Expedition baseball cap. Having been pretty thrilled on day one when Lee gave me mine, I could appreciate her enthusiasm.

And now I myself am already on a plane bound for Washington DC.

At take-off I was treated to the sight of one last South African lightning storm like we enjoyed many times at camp, only this time from strange new angles and heights that alter your sense of scale and turn a cinematic heavenly display into a raucous performance at a theater-in-the-round.

Ashley Kruger, who ran the top-side part of the scanning process caught this bolt whose brightness caused the horizontal streaks at the top of the image. (Photo by Ashley Kruger)

Ashley Kruger, who ran the top-side part of the scanning process caught this bolt whose brightness caused the horizontal streaks at the top of the image. (Photo by Ashley Kruger)

Now that I write that, it echoes deeply the experience of this expedition.

Even working for the National Geographic Society, most of the exploration, research, and discovery I read and write about happens at a distance. To be on-site long-term at a project like this is rare.

The fact that I was right in amongst the storm reporting the discovery as it occurred is a testament not only to the importance of this find, but to Lee Berger and team’s approach to scientific research, and to NG’s dedication to making everyone a part of exploration.

This year has marked the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Society, and we’ve been celebrating it as the beginning of “A New Age of Exploration.”

Having seen this discovery (just hundreds of meters from other major paleoanthro sites) go from “maybe a partial skeleton” to one of the biggest caches of early hominid fossils known, I feel a rush of excitement to realize that new age is more than just a nice phrase.

With the scope of the discovery, the potential for more like it, and Lee Berger’s vision for a new era of collaboration among scientists in this field, it seems serendipitous that this cave system had the name “Rising Star.”

Even with this three-week expedition ending, the story of this site and of what it may tell us about how we became human is truly just beginning.

In the coming months this blog will continue to serve as a platform for news and stories from the project and its many team members.

The filmmakers who have been recording it all as it happened will be preparing a television documentary for National Geographic and NOVA to air around fall of 2014.

It’s a long flight from Johannesburg to Washington DC, so while I’ve been flying and writing, the crew back in South Africa has probably sat around the campfire, slept cozily in the tents, downed some coffee and cereal before one of the last morning briefings, and begun the breakdown I mentioned at the start.

Soon they’ll have it all packed up and aside from a few new footpaths worn into the winding grassy patches among the exposed rocks and stones, the site will look much as it did at the start if the month, before we arrived.

Thirty meters below however, things have changed dramatically. Bones that had lain in silence and darkness for eons have returned to the light of day and begun to speak of hominid lives lived long ago.

And already, more bones are peeking through the fine sediment, just waiting for the return of the Homo sapiens so curious about what they can reveal.

Read All Posts From the Rising Star Expedition

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