An international team of researchers will in the next few days begin excavations on a new site that may contain evidence of early human fossil remains in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (COHWHS), some 40km north Johannesburg.
Professor Lee Berger, a Research Professor in Human Evolution from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, will direct the expedition at Rising Star Cave. Berger is best known for the discovery of Australopithecus sediba at the Malapa site in the COHWHS — one of the most significant palaeoanthropological discoveries in recent times.
The latest discovery was made by an expedition team sent out by Berger to search the deepest recesses of the caves in the Cradle. “The exploration team leader Pedro Boshoff and his two assistants, Steve Tucker and Rick Hunter, were able to access a chamber deep underground that is nearly impossible to get to, where they have found some significant fossils on the surface of the cave floor,” says Berger.
The first step in the Rising Star Expedition is to get the fossils out of the cave and to study them thoroughly before any pronouncement can be made.
“We do not know as yet what species of hominin we have found, and we will not speculate. Our aim is to get the fossils out carefully, study them, compare them to other fossil material from around the world and then proceed to analyse and describe them. This is part of the scientific process and we are hoping to publish our findings — if all goes well — late in 2014,” explains Berger.
The key challenge is that the new site is in the cave structure of the Cradle and is about 30 metres underground, with a very small opening through which only persons with a bust size of 18cm and less can fit.
This compelled Berger to call on his community of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn friends to help him find “tiny and small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills.”
Within days Berger had a list of 57 qualified candidates, of which six scientists were selected to participate in the excavation, all of them women.
“These are highly trained scientists with caving experience from the US, Canada and Australia who are currently in South Africa preparing for the excavation,” adds Berger. “Only a limited number of people will be allowed to the access-restricted site, as one of my key priorities is the safety of our scientists and researchers. We also have to do the best that we can under the circumstances to get these fossils out of the cave, through a complex recovery process.”
Members of the Speleological Exploration of South Africa will assist the expedition.
Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University, says: “The University is home to the richest collections of hominid fossils in the world, and discoveries made by Wits scientists in the Cradle of Humankind are some of the most significant in the palaeosciences record. Professor Berger and his team have already added to this valuable collection with the discovery of Australopithecus sediba, and the latest find to be excavated by the Rising Star Expedition will once again demonstrate the tremendous promise of the palaeosciences on the continent.”
Dawn Robertson, CEO of the Gauteng Tourism Authority that manages the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, says the latest discovery “once again shows the importance of the region to science as it continues to add knowledge to our understanding of human origins in Africa and we cannot wait to see the results of this expedition. Gauteng Tourism is striving to emphasize the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site as one of the unique selling points of our province and this expedition provides the perfect platform to highlight this incredibly significant area.”
“This project is the essence of exploration, and we are thrilled to support Lee Berger and his team,” says Terry Garcia, executive vice president for Missions, National Geographic. “We look forward to sharing the project results across the globe.”
To ensure the safety of the scientists and allow the team to focus on the excavation, access to the site will be restricted. Updates on excavations will be provided through a blog managed by National Geographic, found at http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/tag/rising-star-expedition/
The excavation and scientific analysis that follows will be featured in a National Geographic/NOVA television special.
ABOUT THE PARTNERS:
The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (COHWHS) consists of the fossil hominid sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and the Environs. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and is managed by the COHWHS Site Management Authority in accordance with World Heritage Convention, the Operational Guidelines and the World Heritage Convention Act, 1999.
Wits University has a long association with the COHWHS in terms of scientific discoveries and research. The University owns and manages important fossil sites in the Cradle, and Wits scientists’ contributions to some of the most extraordinary fossil finds here have led to South Africa being a world leader in palaeosciences research with a huge offering to palaeo-tourism.
This is the first exploration Berger is undertaking after being named a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence earlier this year, and the expedition is supported by the National Geographic Society. Explorers-in-Residence are some of the world’s preeminent explorers and scientists who develop programs in their respective areas of study, carrying out fieldwork supported by the Society.