‘Underground astronauts’ keep finding fossils at Rising Star dig

2013-11-14 00:00

“WE knew this was an extraordinary hominid fossil find, but we never expected such a breathtaking discovery. The cave is an absolute fossil treasure trove,” said Professor Lee Berger, who leads the dig at the Rising Star cave complex at the Cradle of Humankind.

He told sister paper Beeld yesterday the team have already found fossil bones of “three or more hominid individuals” in the cave. “It is clear we have to do with several individuals, the remains of at least more than two hominids — and there are still who know how many bones that must be dug up. I honestly don’t know where this will stop.”

The team have since Monday removing close to 50 fossil bones from the narrow cave 30 metres underground.

Experts are cataloguing, photographing, and examining the fossils in a tent marked “Science”. Their excitement mounted when they realised that the bones came from more than one individual. “You realise you all have handled more fossils today than most paleontologists handle in their entire careers,” Steve Churchill of Duke University told the team of six young “underground astronauts”, as the team of petite women have been nicknamed. They were chosen because they can fit into the narrow, winding cave.

A mud-smeared Alia Gurtov, a PhD student in anthropology in the U.S. and one of the six underground astronauts, said most bones in South Africa had fossilised in hard sedimentary rock, but they were simply picking up fossils on the floor. “Each time we go down, we came return with another bag full of bones.”

The fossil bones include a piece of jawbone, shards of hip bone, several loose teeth, vertebrae and sections of so-called “long bones” from limbs.

Gerber said 3-D scans had shown there were many bones underground in the cave. On Tuesday one of the scientists had to stop her careful dig to uncover half a skull when the scans showed there were several other bones under it.

Berger said while it was very exciting to know there were many more bones, the skull would have to be carefully extracted as it could provide so much information on the hominid’s brain size, eating habits and of course, how the hominids looked.

Berger said it will still take a long time to determine to which hominid species the fossil bones belonged.

Alexander H. Parkinson, who is doing his PhD thesis on the financial value of anthropology, said the digs at the Rising Star cave and Malapa pit, where Berger discovered the Australopethicus sediba fossils, represented a golden age of southern African palaeoanthropology.

• Visit newswatch.nationalgeographic.com for more updates.

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