Inside the Cradle of Humankind
The Rising Star Cave system is a series of cracks, chambers, and tunnels through a hill of dolomitic limestone, just like all the other hills in the area. Walk to the top of the hill and within your field of vision are the entrances to hundreds of known caves.
This is not the only one to yield hominid fossils.
Meet the Neighbors
Just across the road is Sterkfontein cave, where researchers have spent more than 70 years painstakingly chipping fossils out of the cement-like breccia that formed around them from water dripping through the limestone.
The best known of those was a nearly perfect skull found by Robert Broom and John Robinson in 1947 and named Plesianthropus transvaalensis. The press nicknamed it “Mrs. Ples” and she’s a local celebrity to this day (though whether she’s actually a she or a he continues to inspire debate, and her scientific identification has changed to Australopithecus africanus).
More recently, in 1994 the first parts of a skeleton nicknamed “Little Foot” were identified in a museum collection by Ronald Clarke. By 1997 more pieces as well as their origin within in the caves had been located. Sixteen years later, the slow excavation from the breccia is still in progress.
A little further on is Swartkrans, another large site with remains from dozens Paranthropus individuals as well as Homo erectus, and beyond that Malapa, where Lee Berger and his son Matthew discovered the first fossils of Australopithecus sediba. Also locked away in hard breccia, sediba has been revealed in part through excavation and part through CT-scanning.
Exactly why the fossils in Rising Star are encased in loose soil instead is one of the mysteries the team will be working on long after we pack up next week.
To get to know these sites and the wider area better, yesterday all the cavers and caver/scientists piled into a couple cars and headed out for a field trip. A walk through Sterkfontein cave ended with rub of the hands (for wisdom) or nose (for luck) of a bust of Broom holding the skull of an australopith.
After a frenzied period of picture taking and gift purchasing in the shop where the University of Witwatersrand sells resin casts of sediba and other hominid fossils, we downed some ice cream pops and headed down the road to “Maropeng.”
The central building of this visitors’ center and museum for the whole region of the Cradle of Humankind is a large tumulus, or earthen mound constructed to hold the remains of esteemed ancestors (or as one of us called it, “a hobbit mansion”). Inside are films, displays, and countless casts of hominid skulls and models of stocky little ape men.
Since much has been made of small size of most of the scientists themselves, this seems an appropriate time to point out that the first night I met the team, Alia Gurtov of the University of Wisconsin-Madison declared that she herself is the height of an adult male australopith. Being at the extreme top end of the range for chimpanzees myself, I understood her unusual sense of pride in this fact.
We were told the name “Maropeng” means “returning to your place of origin.” While these researchers didn’t really need any further inspiration to keep up what they’re doing, it was a good reminder of the spirit that is already driving them to put so much on the line in pursuit of knowledge of our ancient ancestors.
The next day of course, they uncovered even more of them.