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Palaeoanthropologist Christine Steininger. Photo: Brett Eloff

Her academic CV makes a long read, culminating in reading towards a PhD in palaeoanthropology from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and her appointment as Project Director of Cooper’s Cave near Maropeng.

But for Christine Steininger, it all began on an area of open ground behind her family’s home in Illinois, USA. The daughter of a Taiwanese mother and Czech father, Steininger was born in Taiwan but grew up in Illinois after the family moved there when she was three.

“When I was eight years’ old, I led my first expedition into the ‘untamed’ prairies just behind our house in Illinois. I had heard whispers of arrowheads and a burial site found behind our house. My imagination ran wild,” she says.

The expedition produced only a funny-looking rock, but the palaeontological bug had bitten. “I was hooked. I wanted to travel the world searching for bones, meet people from exotic locations and be like the scientists who discovered the skeleton ‘Lucy’”.

Majoring in anthropology at Northern Illinois University, she was mentored by Professor Fred Smith, a well-known palaeoanthropologist specialising in Neanderthals. This led to her first visit to South Africa in 1996 to attend a field school with the Wits team, which excavated sites at Makapansgat and Gladysvale and hunted for fossils in the Free State.

“I had the time of my life. I had studied, read books and articles and watched documentaries on fossil excavations. But to be part of a team excavating these early hominin sites was a dream come true,” she says.

Her love affair with South Africa continued when she was accepted for postgraduate studies at Wits (where she later graduated cum laude with an MSc and is now working towards a PhD), and was also offered the chance to participate in excavating Cooper’s Cave, near Maropeng. “Three months after my arrival I found my first hominin fossil, a partially-crushed facial skeleton of Paranthropus robustus.”

Today Steininger is one of a just a handful of women worldwide who excavate early hominid sites, and the only woman in South Africa to hold this honour. She is the permit holder of Cooper’s Cave and an international and local investigating research team. “I am continually surprised by the extraordinary wealth of South African heritage, a fairly continuous record from 3.6-billion years ago to present,” says Steininger.

There’s enough to keep her busy here for many years to come – all thanks to her early fascination with what lay beneath the surface of an empty field.

Maropeng is offering a limited number of people exclusive walks with Christine Steininger to Cooper’s Cave, which is not normally open to the public, at a cost of R350.00 per person. This will go towards keeping the dig working. Click here to book for the first walk, on April 10.