• Rising Star Expedition team (left to right): Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, Elen Feuerriegel, Marina Elliott, Katherine Lindsay Eaves and Hannah Morris (Photo: Dave Ingold)

Wanted: Slim, cave-savvy archeologists

The job description requested applicants with archeology, caving and climbing experience, but for the most part, those were only preferences.

The clinching qualification to get involved in what could turn out to be recent history’s most important discovery in early hominid fossils was being slim enough to fit through a rock tunnel no wider than the length of a VHS movie cassette.

The Expedition

South African paleoanthropologist Lee Berger sent the request out to universities around the world. A few days later, Marina Elliott had a job. In the midst of a PhD in physical anthropology at Simon Fraser University and armed with a specialty in human bone anatomy and recreational experience climbing and caving, Elliott may have come close to being the perfect candidate. She spent the next two weeks attempting to squeeze her body around furniture in her Vancouver apartment in preparation and then was off to South Africa.

For Berger, a professor at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, time was of the essence. Recreational cavers had discovered these exposed fossils in the beginning of October. Berger quickly assembled a team of geologists complete with equipment, as well as professional cavers and six scientists from around the world who met the job requirements for the Rising Star Expedition.

“Part of the urgency was that the fossils were on the surface (of the cave floor) and they were vulnerable to cave collapse,” Elliott says.

Getting to work

Morning commutes can be a pain in the neck at the best of times. But upon arriving at a collection of tents near Johannesburg, Elliott found out getting to work would involve strapping on a cave light and getting through an entrance rumoured to harbour snakes. She then had to walk and crawl along her belly through a 120-metre cave system full of bats. At the end, there was a final obstacle — a 12-metre vertical chute with an 18-centimetre squeeze before she could reach the coveted fossils.

Sweating from the physical work and the 99.9 per cent humidity in the cave system, Elliott says the first time she went down was “exciting but a little bit nerve-wracking.” She says she wasn’t sure she would fit through the tight patch until the very last moment. “Caving can be very physical to begin with and this one is kind of on the extreme end of that,” she says. “We are all carrying the war wounds of the rocks.” But things went smoothly and she was the first scientist to take the plunge.

The Prize

Twenty metres below the surface in a small cave only a little bigger than an office cubicle, Elliott was “gobsmacked” by a beautiful geological space complete with stalactites, a few stalagmites and columnar cave formations. But the real prize was littered all over the surface of the cave floor — mandibles, pieces of skull and loads of other hominid bone fragments.

“It’s almost unprecedented,” Elliott says of the discovery and the way it’s being approached with the help of cavers and scientists. “(Berger) could have just blasted through the rock to get there.”

But what followed was a careful but efficient way of collecting as much material as they could over the next few weeks of the operation. Elliott and the other scientists used handheld 3D scanners to record surface bone fragments before picking them up. Once the easy stuff was done, they quickly began digging with fine brushes and other tools for material Elliott says has “far-exceeded” their expectations.

The future of humans past

There is so much fossil material that as they wrap up their operation, the team is looking for a way to protect the area so they can continue the excavation next year. In the meantime, geologists are busy working on dating the bones — from multiple individuals — so they can determine the hominid species. All Elliott can say at this point is that they are not anatomically-modern humans.