National Geographic : 2015 Oct
42 national geographic • october 2015 OK,” Elliott recalled. “It was like looking into a shark’s mouth. There were fingers and tongues and teeth of rock.” Elliott and two colleagues, Becca Peixotto and Hannah Morris, inched their way to the “landing zone” at the bottom, then crouched into the fossil chamber. Working in two-hour shifts with another three-woman crew, they plotted and bagged more than 400 fossils on the surface, then started carefully removing soil around the half-buried skull. There were other bones beneath and around it, densely packed. Over the next several days, while the women probed a square-yard patch around the skull, the other scientists huddled around the video feed in the command center above in a state of near-constant excitement. Berger, dressed in field khakis and a Rising Star Expedition cap, would occasionally repair to the science tent to puzzle over the accumulating bones—until a col- lective howl of astonishment from the command center brought him rushing back to witness another discovery. It was a glorious time. The bones were superbly preserved, and from the duplication of body parts, it soon became clear that there was not one skeleton in the cave, but two, then three, then five ... then so many it was hard to keep a clear count. Berger had allotted three weeks for the excavation. By the end of that time, the excavators had removed some 1,200 bones, more than from any other human ancestor site in Africa—and they still hadn’t exhausted the material in just the one square yard around the skull. It took anoth- er several days digging in March 2014 before its sediments ran dry, about six inches down. There were some 1,550 specimens in all, rep- resenting at least 15 individuals. Skulls. Jaws. Ribs. Dozens of teeth. A nearly complete foot. A hand, virtually every bone intact, arranged as in life. Minuscule bones of the inner ear. Elder- ly adults. Juveniles. Infants, identified by their thimble-size vertebrae. Parts of the skeletons looked astonishingly modern. But others were just as astonishingly primitive—in some cases, even more apelike than the australopithecines. “ We’ve found a most remarkable creature,” Berger said. His grin went nearly to his ears. In paleoanthropology, newly discovered specimens are traditionally held close to the vest until they can be carefully analyzed and the results published, with full access to them granted only to the discoverer’s closest collaborators. By this protocol, answering the central mystery of the Rising Star find—What is it?—could take years, even decades. Berger wanted the work done and published by the end of the year. In his view everyone in the field should have access to important new informa- tion as quickly as possible. And maybe he liked the idea of announcing his find, which might be a new candidate for earliest Homo, in 2014— exactly 50 years after Louis Leakey published his discovery of the reigning first member of our genus, Homo habilis. In any case there was only one way to get the analysis done quickly: Put a lot of eyes on the bones. Along with the 20-odd senior scientists who had helped him evaluate the Malapa skele- tons, Berger invited more than 30 young scien- tists, some with the ink still wet on their Ph.D.’s, to Johannesburg from some 15 countries, for a blitzkrieg fossil fest lasting six weeks. To some older scientists who weren’t involved, putting young people on the front line just to rush the papers into print seemed rash. But for the young people in question, it was “a paleofantasy come true,” said Lucas Delezene, a newly appointed professor at the University of Arkansas. “In grad school you dream of a pile of fossils no one has seen before, and you get to figure it out.” There were bones everywhere, just lying about on the surface. The cavers noticed a piece of a lower jaw, with teeth intact. Support for this project was provided by the Lyda Hill Foundation and your Society membership.