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Groundbreaking discovery may reveal course of evolution

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The Peak (Simon Fraser University)

Marina Elliott was part of an excavation that found bones aged one to two million years.
Marina Elliott was part of an excavation that found bones aged one to two million years.

BURNABY — Dubbed “underground astronauts,” a team of six excavators has unearthed over 1,200 fossil hominid fragments from Rising Star cave in South Africa.

The excavation zone, nestled in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, has been known as a hotbed for hominid remains since the 1800s but has not revealed a find this impressive for decades.

Due to the volume of material, the find is one of the most significant discoveries ever made in paleoanthropology.

Two recreational cavers, primed as initial investigators, were the first to stumble upon the remains. An expedition was quickly organized and scientists were called to join the team.

Prospective applicants for the Rising Star Expedition require a master’s degree or PhD in paleontology or a related field, must be an experienced caver and also be able to squeeze through an 18-centimetre wide passage leading to the chamber of the cave.

Of 57 applicants, Marina Elliott, a Simon Fraser University archaeology PhD candidate, was one of the select few to meet the full requirements. Backed by the National Geographic Society, the project was organized and led by professor and researcher Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. The excavation lasted for three weeks in November 2013.

Elliott joined four Americans and one Australian in the underground search that she said was “a major undertaking — not only in danger, but also in the complication of the excavation.”

While the findings cannot be declared until the final analyses have been done, Elliott does offer some details: “The number of individuals [found] is somewhere above 12 … but they don’t have a set number of minimal individuals just yet. Age wise, the remains are tentatively between one or two million years old, but this could change considerably once the final analysis gets done,” she said.

Well known from previously unearthed hominid samples, South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site has had a powerful impact in terms of understanding human evolution and human origin. In a field where discoveries are few and far between, the Rising Star Expedition is a momentous operation for current paleoanthropology research.

However, Elliott refrained from early speculation until more research and analysis has been completed.

“Material like this is rare. It’s really important because it represents a large number of individuals and it’s definitely a major find in paleoanthropology, but it’s too early to know the full impact,” Elliot said.

Academic papers are expected to be published by the end of 2014, but for now all theories are tentative.

“We will hopefully find out the type of species in the next couple of months. We are probably not talking human, probably for sure and probably not even in the genus homo … but it’s possible that these individuals are something like an australopithecine,” which is any of several extinct humanlike primates.

As an all-female team, the Rising Star Expedition didn’t simply make literal ground-breaking discoveries — the team also advertised female scientists.

“It’s a nice opportunity to showcase women in science. This was dirty and physical work, and that doesn’t always get told … [but] this work is just as much part of a lab or academic setting,” Elliot said.

She continued, “It’s also nice to tell people that if they have a daughter, it’s not only bookwork. There’s a lot of work like this in the sciences and that’s great to be able to say.”

Photo: Elen Feuerriegel

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