Lee Berger put his ad up on Facebook on October 7th, 2013. He needed diggers for an exciting expedition. They had to have experience in palaeontology or archaeology, and they had to be willing to drop everything and fly to South Africa within the month. “The catch is this—the person must be skinny and preferably small,” he wrote. “They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus.”
“I thought maybe there were three or four people in the world who would fit that criteria,” Berger recalls. “Within a few days, I had 60 applicants, all qualified. I picked six.” They were all women and all skinny—fortunately so, given what happened next. Berger, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, sent them into the Rising Star Cave, and asked them to squeeze themselves through a long vertical chute, which narrowed to a gap just 18 centimetres wide.
That gap was all that separated them from the bones a new species of ancient human, or hominin, which the team named Homo naledi after a local word for “star”. We don’t know when it lived, or how it was related to us. But we do know that it was a creature with a baffling mosaic of features, some of which were remarkably similar to modern humans, and others of which were more ape-like in character.
This we know because the six women who entered the cave excavated one of the richest collections of hominin fossils ever discovered—some 1,550 fossil fragments, belonging to at least 15 individual skeletons. To find one complete skeleton of a new hominin would be hitting the paleoanthropological jackpot. To find 15, and perhaps more, is like nuking the jackpot from orbit.
Credit: John Hawks
The earliest hominins were the australopiths, with their sturdy builds, long arms, short legs, and small brains. A couple of million years ago, they were joined by the first members of our genus Homo, with their longer legs, stiffer walking feet, more dextrous fingers, and much larger brains. And some curious species harbour traits that are typical of both lineages.
In 2008, Berger found one such mosaic in South Africa’s Malapa cave: a new hominin called Australopithecus sediba. He spent the next five years studying it. The project became …Read More