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A treasure trove of fossil finds

Scientists and Wits students were on hand to help with the excavation of fossils. Here Gary Trower is sifting through some dirt.
Scientists and Wits students were on hand to help with the excavation of fossils. Here Gary Trower is sifting through some dirt.

It was like walking onto an Indiana Jones movie set.

Local and international journalists had the opportunity to visit the Rising Star Expedition Team’s camp site where they were greeted by canvas tents, over three kilometres of wiring, dust and excitement.

This “treasure trove”, as Professor Lee Berger, a research professor in Human Evolution from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence calls it, has been the scene of one of the richest fossil finds in the Cradle thus far and possibly also in Southern Africa.

Sadly, during the site visit, the team was embarking on their last excavation exercise.

On 6 November Berger announced that an international team of researchers would begin excavations on a new site in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (COHWHS) that might contain evidence of early human fossil remains.

The key challenge was that the new site was in the cave structure of the Cradle and about 30 metres below the surface, with a very small opening through which only persons with a bust size of 18cm and less can fit.

This compelled Berger to call on his community of facebook, twitter and LinkedIn friends to help him find tiny, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills.

Almost three weeks later, Berger invited the media to announce the end of the excavation, explaining that the real work was only starting.

The team gathered over 1 000 fossil specimens and carefully will determine how old they are.

“It is extremely painful to end the expedition. We only scratched the surface since we came to dig up a skeleton and are leaving with so much more. This is going to open the field of palaeoanthropology even more,” said Berger during the press visit.

Although it cannot be confirmed, Berger believed the fossils found were those of ancient hominids.

Extreme security measures have been put in place to secure the expedition site.

Berger thanked the local and Gauteng government for meeting their every expectation regarding this remarkable and historical expedition.

Of course a second expedition is on the cards, however, Berger stressed that a lot of planning, funding and support need to be acquired first.

“There is an entirely new world laying beneath here.”

He also mentioned that there were signs of recent human activity in the cave. Luckily none of this affected the fossils in any way.

“It is important for people to be educated properly in terms of exploration. You don’t have to be a scientist to know how to explore. Take care when you hike, scuba dive or even dwell in open structures. Be careful not to tread on something you might think is not significant,” ended Berger.

Updates on excavations will be provided through a blog managed by National Geographic, found at http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/tag/rising-star-expedition/.

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