Cradle Of Humankind Cave In South Africa Yields Over 1000 Fossils

By Josh Lieberman on November 27, 2013 2:31 PM EST

hominin
The Cradle of Humankind has yielded many of the oldest hominin fossils, such as the ‪Australopithecus africanus‬ above. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Archeologists have excavated over a thousand well-preserved hominin fossils in South Africa, less than a month after the "treasure trove" was discovered through a cave's narrow opening. A team led by archeologist Lee Berger of South Africa's University of Witwatersrand found the fossils in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site near Johannesburg which has yielded an enormous number of hominin fossils since the 1930s.   

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"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."

Berger's expedition began in October, after members of a spelunking group called the Speleological Exploration Club first found fossils in the Rising Star cave. Berger put out a call on social media looking for scientists who not only had archaeological experience but were slight enough to slide through the Rising Star cave's 7-inch opening. Berger selected six slim women, and on November 10 the women plunged as deep as 100 feet down in the cave, working six- to seven-hour shifts.

Berger hasn't commented on how many hominins his team has found, or how old they are. (Hominins refer to modern humans and their ancestors.) He told Africa's Mail & Guardian that the team found at least one early hominin skull. With over a thousand fossils found in the cave, Berger's team has halted looking for more while they attempt to identify what they've hauled up so far--some 1,069 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 expedition was initially begun 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...We are excavating [only] the most exposed fossils."

In a video on National Geographic's site, some of the archeologists on Berger's team discuss the difficulty of extracting a skull from the cave. The skull was very soft, owing to the dampness of the cave, and the team took pains to remove it in one piece without breaking it. The video is worth checking out, especially to see how archeologists above-ground are able to monitor what's going on in the cave via a video link.

If you want to follow the progress of the Rising Star expedition, Berger's Twitter feed is filled with excavation goodness.

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