On Friday 13 September 2013, recreational cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker visited Rising Star to look for undiscovered sections of the popular and well-explored cave. At the top of a difficult 15-to-20-metre climb known as “The Dragon’s Back”, they discovered a tiny, unexplored crack in the rock. Steven wriggled down this chute feet first — like the caver above you — then shouted up to Rick, “It goes!” These are the two words every cave explorer wants to hear. Together, the two followed their unmarked route into an uncharted chamber 30 metres underground – and filled with fossils.
Not sure what to make of these mysterious bones, the two explorers contacted a fellow caver and geologist, Pedro Boshoff, who knew just the person to ask. On his advice, the cavers brought photos of the find to University of the Witwatersrand Professor Lee Berger, a palaeoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence. Because his specialty is our human fossil past, Prof Berger immediately recognised the bones as belonging to a hominin. But from Rick and Steven’s description of the almost inaccessible chamber, he knew he would never fit down the narrow chute and would need a specialised team of scientists to retrieve the bones.
To assemble his team, Prof Berger posted this advertisement on Facebook. Over 60 people applied, but only six were chosen to become Rising Star Expedition’s Advance Cave Scientists, popularly known as the “Underground Astronauts”.