Fossils from Two Ancient Human Ancestors Complete Trip into Space
When Virgin Galactic’s private spaceship, the VSS Unity, was launched into orbit on September 8, it was carrying a most unique cargo. These were two fossilized bones that belonged to two different species of archaic human: Australopithecus sebida, which lived in southern Africa two million years ago, and the much younger Homo naledi, which occupied the African continent 250,000 years ago. These two species now carry the distinction of being the only extinct hominins to ever leave the surface of the Earth, which is something neither would have thought possible when they were alive and walking across the planet so many aeons ago.
The largest and oldest of the two space-born fossils is an Australopithecus sebida clavicle bone unearthed by nine-year-old fossil hunter Matthew Berger in 2008, at an archaeological site known as Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage park in Johannesburg, South Africa. The second fossil is a Homo naledi thumb bone that was found in 2013 by professional archaeologists performing excavations at the Rising Star Cave system, which is also included within the boundaries of the Cradle of Humankind site.
During the flight, the two ancient hominin bones were in the possession of Timothy Nash, a South African conservationist and entrepreneur who has been participating in human origins research in Africa. They were kept inside a sealed carbon fiber container, which kept them safe and dry throughout their trip into outer space and back.
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The Most Ancient Astronauts of Them All
The purpose of this enticing gesture was to acknowledge the link between space exploration and the process of evolution itself.
“The journey of these fossils into space represents humankind’s appreciation of the contribution of all of humanity’s ancestors and our ancient relatives,” stated Professor Lee Berger, the Director of the Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, in a press release from his university.
“Without their invention of technologies such as fire and tools, and their contribution to the evolution of the contemporary human mind, such extraordinary endeavors as spaceflight would not have happened.”
Beyond such considerations, this symbolic event had a bit of extra meaning to Lee Berger, since the Matthew Berger that found the Australopithecus sediba clavicle bone back in 2008 is his son.
"These fossils represent individuals who lived and died hundreds of thousands of years ago, yet were individuals who likely gazed up at the stars in wonder, much as we do," said the now 24-year-old Matthew, who handed the two fossils over to Timothy Nash during a brief ceremony before the Virgin Galactic launch.
"I imagine they never could have dreamed while alive of taking such an incredible journey as ambassadors of all of humankind's ancestors."
Fittingly, the Australopithecus sebida collarbone fossil found by young Matthew Berger belonged to a young boy just like himself, who was only 50 inches (127 centimeters) tall at the time of his death. This extraordinarily ancient hominin species walked on two feet like humans, but still frequently climbed trees and more closely resembled a modern ape than a human being in most of its characteristics.
In contrast, the far more recently living Homo naledi had arms, feet, teeth and a brain that were similar in structure to those of humans, although they possessed many apelike features as well. This species was clearly quite intelligent, as they made tools from bone and stone and carved symbols on the walls of the caves they occupied.
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Criticism from the Science Community
The exercise is not without its critics, however, with many questioning whether it serves and scientific purpose, and voicing their ethical concerns.
According to a Live Science report, Alessio Veneziano, a biological anthropologist and co-organizer of the AHEAD conference (Advances in Human Evolution, Adaptation and Diversity) identified four main issues that have been discussed:
1) the lack of scientific justification for the flight;
2) ethical issues surrounding respect for human ancestral remains;
3) Berger's access to the fossils, which few other researchers share; and
4) the misrepresentation of the practice of palaeoanthropology.
There was also the concern that should there have been problems with the flight, the rare specimens could be lost forever.
The First of Many Historic Firsts to Come
Founded in 2004 by serial entrepreneur Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic is a privately-owned company that has only recently begun ferrying civilians into space. Timothy Nash paid for the privilege of being one of three passengers on the VSS Unity’s latest space excursion, and he agreed to carry the fossils into space to help further the cause of evolutionary research.
"The magnitude of being among the first civilians going into space, and carrying these precious fossils, has taken a while to sink in, during all of the preparations for the flight," Nash declared shortly before takeoff. "But I am humbled and honored to represent South Africa and all of humankind, as I carry these precious representations of our collective ancestors, on this first journey of our ancient relatives into space."
After taking off from Spaceport America just outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the VSS Unity and its ancient cargo eventually reached suborbital space, approximately 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. The space plane returned to Earth a few hours later without incident, completing its third round trip with private passengers this year.
As the company ultimately responsible for this successful mission, Virgin Galactic expressed their excitement about being able to participate in such a unique historic first.
“For our third commercial spaceflight mission, designated ‘ Galactic 03’, we created a special astronaut patch that was created to commemorate the flight,” said Mike Moses, the company official in charge of space missions. “The patch includes elements of the South African, British, and American flags to highlight the nationalities and affiliations of the astronauts onboard and it also carries two blue stars, to signify the sediba and naledi fossils carried on the spaceflight. It was a privilege to fly these incredible specimens aboard today, and a beautiful way to highlight the importance of human exploration.”
If everything goes according to plan, Virgin Galactic will continue to launch one spaceflight per month reserved exclusively for tourist travel. That schedule could ramp up considerably in 2026, when the company will introduce its new Delta class of space planes that are capable of taking off and landing once per week.
Since their paid passengers will come from all walks of life, there is no telling what kind of unusual objects people may choose to carry into orbit in the future. But it is safe to assume that some of those objects will have never been sent into space before, which means that many more historic firsts in space travel are undoubtedly on the horizon.
Top image: The fossil fragments in a carbon fiber tube with Professor Lee Berger, Timothy Nash and Mathew Berger. Source: University of the Witwatersrand
By Nathan Falde