Could Cave Findings Unravel Mysteries of Human Origins?
Archaeologists have just completed a 3-week excavation of the Rising Star cave system in the northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the results are expected to be revolutionary. The dig yielded over 1000 fossils and it is believed that the analysis of the fossils will answer questions such as: what did our ancestors look like? How are we all related? And who exactly were our ancestors?
National Geographic cave explorer, Lee Berger of South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, created a media storm back in 2010 when his team discovered two skeletons of a completely new, two million year old hominid species, which was subsequently named Australopithecus sediba. More recently, Berger and his team found another new species of human ancestor in the Rising Star cave just a few miles away from the previous discovery. So the Rising Star excavation was launched to recover the fossil of the new species and to discover what more may be buried there.
The excavation was not an easy one. Team members had to squeeze through a tiny 7-inch opening and plunge as deep as 100 feet down, hanging precariously on ropes, and working six to seven hours shifts in the depths of the dark and damp cave.
The project concluded yesterday and the team of archaeologists and explorers have remained tight-lipped about just what they found in the depths of the cave. They are careful not to reveal all before a complete analysis has been conducted, but their excitement is clear.
"We can confirm this site is the richest early hominin site in South Africa," said Berger. "The quality of preservation is unprecedented.... [The fossils] appear to be early hominins. We are not speculating on age. We don't know what species they are and we don't know how many individuals we are dealing with."
Remarkably, the excavation began as a recovery process to extract a single skeleton but turned into a “treasure trove” as the research team found thousands of fossils. "We don't have anywhere near [all of the fossils]. We haven't scratched the surface. This excavation will go on for decades," Berger said. The team now needs to develop a plan to deal with the abundance of material that was extracted from the cave and to piece together the story that they tell.