Treasure trove of ancient hominids

Schalk Mouton

WITS University palaeoanthropologist Professor Lee Berger’s latest find – a superbly preserved cache of ancient hominid fossils – might be the first of a previously undiscovered world that could lead to a new gold rush of scientists to the area for decades to come.

With the first leg of Berger’s Rising Star Expedition coming to an end yesterday, his team of scientists now have the huge task of identifying, dating and sorting through more than 1000 objects brought up through a tunnel only 18cm wide and 11m deep.

Berger’s team of cavers found the cave in the Cradle of Humankind, northwest of Johannesburg, on September 13.

Entering the cave for the first time early this month, thinking they were going in to recover a single skeleton, Berger’s team instantly realised they were dealing with a much bigger find.

“This site, which we have yet to name, is the richest early hominid site in southern Africa,” Berger said.

For the past 21 days, six highly trained women – all skilled cavers and archaeologists – have worked seven- hour shifts in a cave that is smaller than two square metres and 11 metres under ground.

The humidity in the cave is about 99% and the temperature is 18°C. “We have more material recovered from here in catalogue numbers than any other site ever discovered, including the sites of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans,” he said.

Berger, who became an explorer in residence for National Geographic in August, shot to fame in 2008 when he discovered a full skeleton of a previously undiscovered early human ancestor, called Australopithecus sediba.

The sites of these two discoveries are just 15km from each other.

“There is an entire [unexplored] world that lies just beneath here,” Berger said of the Cradle of Humankind.

Pedro Boshoff, the geologist who found the cave where the find was made, said there were at least 400 other caves in the area, which lies between Tarlton and Centurion and Krugersdorp and the Hartbeespoort Dam.

“Our task now will be to return to these caves and to re-evaluate their importance,” Boshoff said.

While Berger did not want to speculate on details of the fossils found in the latest discovery – like their age, species or numbers – he did say the preservation of the fossils was superb and that they were “ancient hominids”.

“We have not yet even scratched the surface of this system.

“I can say categorically this work will go on for decades and decades.

“It is rich beyond our imagination,” Berger said.

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