It’s a sunny day in September in Johannesburg, South Africa, and we’re at the entrance of the Dinaledi cave in Sterkfontein, a UNESCO World Heritage Site an hour’s drive from the city, famous for its limestone caves and fossil hominid finds.
For a hot day, the cave is remarkably cool, the only source of light inside it an opening about 30 feet up. A few steps in and our shadows are slowly consumed by the enveloping blackness. There is humidity and excitement in the air, as you realize that deep down in the belly of this very cave, a landmark fossil discovery had just been made.
On September 10, the scientific community had woken up to the announcement of the discovery of “a new species of human relative”, Homo naledi, led by Lee Berger, a professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence. Consisting of more than 1,550 numbered fossil elements, the researchers are calling it “the single largest fossil hominin find yet made on the continent of Africa”.
And at the forefront of the excavation were six women tasked with digging out slowly, skilfully, the trove of bones from the Sterkfontein caves.
How did Berger find them? With National Geographic’s backing, he had placed an advertisement on Facebook, calling for explorers with palaeontological or archaeological experience.
“Lee called National Geographic and told them he needed support in getting the fossils out,” says Marina Elliott, a 46-year-old Canadian who was one of the six selected.
Berger initially thought only “three or so people” in the world would be qualified for an excavation of that nature. To his astonishment, more than 60 applied.
With a panel of experts, including well-known United States (US) professor of anthropology John Hawks, Berger selected a team he called ‘underground astronauts’ – by default, they were all women.
“When I shortlisted the list with the panel, we chose the people with the best skill-sets. There were a couple of men on the shortlist but the women that we picked were super-qualified. They had the right stuff, so to speak, and they weren’t selected for their gender, they were selected for their skills. It just so happened that those skills were vested in six women,” says Berger.
Of the six ‘underground astronauts’, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA met two, Elliott and Lindsay Hunter, at the Cradle of Humankind, a museum near the Dinaledi cave where at least 15 skeletons of the Homo naledi species are now on display. With them was 23-year-old South African, Mpume Hlophe, who joined the team in January.
The original team also includes Becca Peixotto, Hannah Morris and Alia Gurtov from the US and Elen Feuerriegel from Australia.
Thirty six-year-old Hunter, also from the US, talks about that first Skype interview with Berger. She recalls how cautious he had sounded. The whole expedition was not without great risks, but the women, quite literally, caved.
“He was very careful about telling us that the environment was quite confined and potentially dangerous and that if anything happened underground, it would be quite difficult to take somebody out,” says Hunter.
Elliott chips in extolling the many virtues of an all-women team.
“We watched out for each other really well and the dynamics was really nice. I don’t know if that would’ve been the case with an all-male crew or a mixed gender crew. An all-women crew might have been a benefit in the sense that in the claustrophobic conditions, we were entwined in each other. It was like playing twister underground, so it was just easier to move.”
At the Dinaledi cave, the women descended down a 6.8 inch chute, 40 feet into the chamber, almost proving to the world women can go to any lengths for a job well done.
Bones of contention
Described as having “primitive and derived characters all in one body” (see box), Homo naledi represents a new species, naledi, in the genus Homo. The startling feature about Homo naledi is that it’s believed the species buried its dead, a trait thought to be exclusive to Homo sapiens.
The discovery of the fossils has met with some criticism from the global scientific community, with some questioning Homo naledi’s ability to bury its dead and whether it really is a new species. Darren Curnoe, associate professor at the University of New South Wales Australia, trashes the hypothesis of Homo naledi burying its dead, saying it infuriates many scientists and detracts from an otherwise significant discovery.
“This is really just a claim used to generate headlines. Burial of the dead is something exclusive to our species, Homo sapiens,” says Curnoe.
Chris Stinger, a British professor who specializes in Human Origins and Palaeoanthropology at the Natural History Museum in London, says the material looks most similar to the small-bodied examples of Homo erectus.
Christoph Zollikofer, professor of anthropology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, posed the question of a geological date for the fossils.
“The Dinaledi fossils form part of the human lineage in the widest sense. How exactly they are related to us remains an open question, especially because there is no geological date for these fossils,” says Zollikofer.
Responding to the criticism, Berger emphasizes more than 60 scientists spent two years producing the research using the latest technology.
“Some scientists shoot from the hip within 24 hours of these papers coming out, and they could have had no chance to spin that kind of analysis, but scientists are humans too,” retorts Berger.
Berger says he now awaits thoughtful, deep analysis from his colleagues and scientists around the world, to whom he has given access to the fossils and to every measurement published.
“I don’t really want to jump into the criticism yet. There’s no reason to attack my colleagues who, perhaps, in justifying it, want to be in the media,” says Berger.
The discovery of Homo naledi has flown the flag high for African science. Elliott hopes their work underground will inspire other women.
“At the launch of the fossils, a police officer guarding the event introduced me to her daughter and told me that she wanted to do what I do. That motivated me to inspire even more young girls,” says Elliott.
The team’s new addition Hlophe, who moved from Durban to Johannesburg to pursue her love for exploration, is one of those to have been inspired.
“It’s nice to see women do what normally would be done by men. It motivates young African girls to not be confined by their gender in wanting to achieve greatness. I’m new to this exploration team, but so far it’s amazing to be an African girl who is part of this,” says Hlophe.
The exploratory work continues on site, as the cave is believed to hold more secrets, but like Homo naledi, these women too have etched their names in science journals and history books.