Rising Star Expedition Finds Trove of Human Fossils

About one hour’s drive outside of Johannesburg, South Africa lies a cave where a group of scientists has found over 1,000 fossils from early hominids. The scientists, part of a group called the Rising Star Expedition, have been taking considerable personal risks to retrieve the fossils.

Excavation began in late October 2013 after a single skeleton was detected at the cave site. Professor Lee Berger, who works in archaeology at Wits University’s Institute of Human Evolution, originally launched the expedition in order to recover this single individual. The effort began on Nov. 10. The team thought it was urgent that they recover the fossils as soon as possible due to their exposure to rain and accidental human damage. Andrew Howley, in the employ of National Geographic, has refused to give details about the cave’s topography or location because the site had been used for recreational caving and the specimens remain vulnerable.

Soon after the process of uncovering the fossil began, however, they discovered a huge trove of valuable material. The site has now been dubbed “the richest early hominid site in South Africa,” in the words of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.

At the moment, researchers are reluctant to issue definite statements on the age or species of the finds, but Berger noted that they appeared to be from human ancestors. The team has now ceased excavations at the site, but the ongoing efforts to uncover and analyze the many finds will take decades. In an interview with the Mail and Guardian, Berger said, “We don’t have anywhere near [all of the fossils]. We haven’t scratched the surface.”

In fact, Howley’s report from National Geographic claimed that the process of unearthing and analyzing these bones has been made far more complicated by additional discoveries. In the words of the report, “More bones is a good problem, but it’s still a problem. It’s no longer feasible to clear a few inches of dirt on every side and simply lift the fossil out.” Once all of the specimens are carefully taken out of the ground, they have to be analyzed, dated and identified. This process can take thousands of hours with even one skeleton, and the sheer size of the find suggests that this process will take an unprecedented amount of cooperative efforts from scientists.

According to John Hawks, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin who is cooperating with the expedition, “If the team was to analyze the data in the ‘traditional way,’ which involved groups keeping the data to themselves and analyzing it using their data sets only, it would take more people than there are in the field” (Mail and Guardian). Evidently, the task calls for nontraditional methods, probably, according to Professor Berger, involving unprecedented use of advanced communications and scanning technology.

Now that the initial phase of the dig has stopped, the site has been sealed and security posted around it to protect the find. This discovery is one of the most exciting in the history of the study of human origins and evolution and will likely yield numerous revelations to scientists for years to come.