News on South Africa’s Hominins: Berger’s Rising Star Expedition

This November, a team funded by National Geographic and led by Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg made a huge find. 1200 hominin skeletal elements were recovered from a South African cave, representing at least 12 individuals. Human remains are pretty rare, and this one site contains more human fossil material than the rest of South Africa combined, according to Berger.  While I’m sure the researchers have their hunches, they have so far been cryptic about species attribution. Dates have also yet to be determined for the collection.

Only months passed between the original discovery of the cave and the excavation of the remains. Berger quickly mobilized a 60 person team and secured funding from National Geographic to conduct a field season (the team came to be called the Rising Star Expedition). Though the remains had been in the cave for perhaps millions of years, it was impossible to know if they would survive another rainy season, which was fast approaching in November.  Unlike most other fossils of the same antiquity these were sitting in loose sediments, which are easier to excavate than breccia but could likely make the bones more fragile.

In order to access the chamber with the fossils, scientists must squeeze through a seven inch opening.  While it has been suggested that the cave opening be widened, Berger doesn’t think a cave that has been forming for millions of years should be updated so that the project directors can stand over the finds. For this reason, small-bodied paleoanthropologists and archaeologists were recruited from all over the world to participate in the fieldwork. In fact, because of size, Berger sent his 15 year old son Matthew in to verify there were in fact human remains in the preliminary stages of the project.

Lee Berger with A. sediba. Photo credit Eloff.
Lee Berger with A. sediba. Photo credit Eloff.

While the finds coming from this project are remarkable, the way in which Berger has been directing the project has been equally fantastic. Typical fossil finds (see recent post on Ardi, for an example) are guarded for years, sometimes over a decade. Frequently only select researchers are able to access the material and data, which makes it difficult for publications to be critiqued or built on by other scientists.  Berger has gone the opposite direction, making fossils less his and more open-access. He already set the stage for this type of protocol with A. sediba, which was published in 2010 shortly after being unearthed.

Transparency and collaboration wasn’t enough for leaders of the Rising Star Expedition, though. Last week, they announced a call for applications to work on the fossil material, especially for early-career scientists.  Successful applicants will have their expenses covered to travel to South Africa for the month long project, which is guaranteed to generate some high-impact publications.  This type of cooperative research is unheard of, and will provide significant opportunities for future generations of paleoanthropologists.  If I didn’t specialize in stone tools, my application would’ve already been in.

The work of Berger’s team is commendable, and they will undoubtedly out produce most other proprietary, territorial paleoanthropologist in both quantity and quality. It will be interesting to see what else the cave yields next season, since literally only centimeters on the surface of a relatively small area have been scratched.

Matthew Magnani

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