Unusual dig after cavers find fossils

2013-11-07 00:00

A FIND by two cavers under the Cradle of Humankind has set in motion the most advanced and unusual fossil dig yet.

Professor Lee Berger, research professor in human evolution from the evolutionary studies institute at Wits and a National Geographic explorer-in- residence, said the pair made a hominid discovery of significant interest.

Berger said while he could not speculate on what kind fossil was underground, the discovery was significant.

The two cavers, Steven Tucker (27), an auditor in Pretoria, and Rick Hunter (25), a research assistant in Johannesburg, had no interest in bones when they explored a very narrow tunnel 30 metres underground in the Rising Star cave system near the Cradle of Humankind. However, fellow caver Pedro Boshoff had passed on a request from Berger that all cavers should be on the look out for any fossils under the Cradle. When Tucker and Hunter happened upon a pile of bones, including a strange jawbone, on September 13, they alerted Boshoff to the find.

Tucker said they had no idea that the bones would be so important.

“We dismissed it as just bones,” Hunter said. The two returned to the tunnel on September 24 with Boshoff to take photos.

Boshoff said when he saw the photos for the first time on October 1, he immediately realised this was a big discovery. That same evening, Boshoff showed the photos to Berger. Because the bones are partially exposed, Berger realised they would have to work fast to organise a large-scale dig.

The main challenge is that the tunnel is so narrow that only very small cavers would be able to reach the fossilised bones to dig them out.

Berger advertised on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn “for tiny and small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills”.

He received 57 applicants within days and assembled a team of six scientists, all women, with caving experience from the U.S., Canada, and Australia, who are currently preparing to bring the bones to the surface in three weeks.

“We will share the entire excavation process on social media and a blog with the world. It will definitely be the first of its kind,” said Berger.

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