If you’ve ever won­dered what it’s like to be an under­ground astro­naut”, unlock­ing the secrets of the ori­gins of human­i­ty, now’s your chance.

The Almost Human exhi­bi­tion at Maropeng, fea­tur­ing the Homo nale­di dis­cov­er­ies, does just that.

The exhi­bi­tion is now open to the pub­lic, and is includ­ed in a stan­dard tick­et to Maropeng. You can book your tick­ets here.

The new exhi­bi­tion, the largest-ever pub­lic dis­play of hominin fos­sils, fea­tures the new hominin species that South Africa intro­duced to the world in 2015, Homo nale­di. What’s more, it takes the pub­lic on an inter­ac­tive jour­ney in the foot­steps of the intre­pid Ris­ing Star expe­di­tion team behind the discovery.

A peek inside the won­der­ful room hold orig­i­nal #Homonale­di fos­sils @MaropengSA pic​.twit​ter​.com/​w​6​j​M​g​vEpxi

— Lee Berg­er (@LeeRberger) 25 May 2017

And it’s indeed a unique journey.

Vis­i­tors are chal­lenged to squeeze through a recre­ation of the 18cm crack that the team had to fit through in order to get to the caves in which these ancient trea­sures lay. They also get to view nev­er-before-seen footage of the inside of these fos­sil-rich caves. And they get to meet Neo, the most com­plete Homo nale­di fossil.

I think Neo, in par­tic­u­lar, is impor­tant to sci­ence and to human­i­ty because he’s kind of a Roset­ta Stone for us, in terms of the mate­r­i­al that we’ve already recov­ered from the Dinale­di Cham­ber,” said Dr Mari­na Elliot, one of the orig­i­nal mem­bers of the Ris­ing Star team.

We found 15 indi­vid­u­als, rang­ing from small all the way up to old­er adults, but they were kind of mixed up, so we couldn’t get a sense of what a sin­gle indi­vid­ual looked like. Neo kind of fix­es that for us,” she said.

(10B) Dr Marina Elliott 1

Dr Mari­na Elliott inside the Ris­ing Star cave sys­tem. (Image: Dirk van Rooyen/​Wits University)

Elliot helped put togeth­er the exhib­it and was on hand to guide the first vis­i­tors through the exhi­bi­tion, which opened at Maropeng today in a new tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tion space called The Gallery.

Expe­di­tion leader Pro­fes­sor Lee Berg­er said the exhi­bi­tion is a sig­nif­i­cant one for humanity.

I think that there is some­thing crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant about the pub­lic being able to see the real thing. It’s impor­tant to see that these fos­sils are real – they’re a real part of our her­itage, a part of human her­itage,” he said.

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The entrance to the Almost Human exhi­bi­tion has been built to resem­ble the entrance to the actu­al Ris­ing Star cave sys­tem where the fos­sils were found. (Image: Maropeng)

If there are heroes in the Homo nale­di sto­ry, it is the sci­en­tists – dubbed under­ground astro­nauts” – who braved treach­er­ous con­di­tions to bring the dis­cov­ery to the world. Berg­er says the explor­ers, at times, faced life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions under­ground, but con­tin­ued undaunted.

That was nerve-rack­ing and har­row­ing,” he admitted.

I’ve done plen­ty of expe­di­tions, but I’d nev­er done one where I couldn’t lead from the front, where I couldn’t go first. And I was nev­er going to go down this 18cm slot, which you can expe­ri­ence here. In hind­sight, to relive it through this exhi­bi­tion is amazing.”

Expe­di­tion mem­ber Pro­fes­sor John Hawks, who co-authored a book on the dis­cov­ery with Berg­er, said the expe­ri­ence was life-changing.

The minute that we had this dis­cov­ery, sud­den­ly every­thing changed,” said Hawks. You sud­den­ly realise there’s this ques­tion you can’t answer and it’s not a ques­tion you knew was there. As a sci­en­tist, that’s what draws you in: you’re find­ing some­thing real­ly new and you have to under­stand it.”

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Neo was in the spot­light at the exhi­bi­tion open­ing. (Image: Maropeng)

Berg­er says it’s one that peo­ple will not want to miss.

This is a once-in-a-life­time chance. We have not decid­ed how long this exhi­bi­tion will be on, but when it clos­es, it will be a long, long time before some­thing of this mag­ni­tude goes on dis­play again.”