Scientists bag more than 1 000 fossils at Cradle ‘treasure trove’

Less than a month since Professor Lee Berger and the Rising Star Expedition team began excavating a "spectacular" fossil find, they have bagged more than a thousand fossils.

On Tuesday, the archaeological professor at Wits University's Institute of Human Evolution announced that this would be their last day of excavating at the site, "the richest early hominid site in South Africa, including Sterkfontein".

"The expedition was built to recover a single skeleton, not a treasure trove.

"We need to re-assess the scientific plan and also how to deal with the abundance of material," he said at a press briefing at the site in the Cradle of Humankind.

The collection of canvas tents in the green hills of northern Gauteng has been the base camp for the scientists and expedition support team for the past three weeks. The expedition first made headlines earlier this month, after Berger put out a call for "skinny anthropologists, biologists, cavers, not afraid of confined spaces".

The "treasure trove" of early or ancient hominid fossils was in a chamber about 30 metres underground, which could only be accessed via a narrow entrance measuring about 18cm across. Six international scientists, who were also experienced spelunkers (people who explore and study caves as a hobby), have been on site since November 10, working shifts between four and seven hours to retrieve the fossils.

Although he convened a press conference to announce the end of this excavation, Berger refused to be drawn on details of the find – such as the hominids' ages, species or numbers – saying it would be speculation. But he said they appeared to be "early hominids".

The sheer number of recovered fossils poses difficulties for the team. When Berger discovered Australopithicus sediba in 2008, "there were 250 elements [that took thousands of man hours to [limn]". He planned to create an open source platform to pool global resources to analyse the fossils. "We're going to explore the concept of developing a new way of sharing data."

Rising Star Expedition
John Hawks, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin who is also working on the expedition, said that if the team was to analyse the data in the "traditional way", which involved groups keeping the data to themselves and analysing it using their data sets only, "it would take more people than there are in the field".

Even though Rising Star Expedition – a collaboration between Wits University and National Geographic, where Berger is an explorer in residence – was ending, "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.


When the expedition was announced, Berger said that it was being accelerated because the fossils were "vulnerably exposed". On Tuesday, he said that there was evidence that modern humans had already been in the cave, and had damaged some of the fossils. National Geographic's Andrew Howley would not describe the underground layout of the site, saying it was a recreational spelunking site and it would tip people off to where it was.

Berger said that security measures were being implemented to protect the site, which he described as a site of "world heritage".

"We are closing the door behind us, but we will be back."

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him

Zuma turns on judiciary as trial nears

Former president says pre-trial correspondence is part of another plot

High court declares Dudu Myeni delinquent

Disgraced former SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni has been declared a delinquent director by the...

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members
Advertising

Press Releases

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

Openview, now powered by two million homes

The future of free-to-air satellite TV is celebrating having two million viewers by giving away two homes worth R2-million

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday