Johannesburg update

2 minute read

I imagine my static website for the past three weeks left many people wondering if the Science Cafe led to my untimely demise. “Who Sciences Harder” indeed!

After that event I left for Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was working at the University of the Witwatersrand on the fossil collection. I’ve been too busy to blog for two weeks.

Or, well, that’s not precisely correct. I did post last week at the National Geographic Rising Star Expedition blog, describing our foray back into the cave system to investigate a second hominin-bearing locality: “Scientists Return to Explore a Second Fossil Chamber”.

Most everyone following paleoanthropology by now knows about the chamber that produced more than 1200 numbered specimens. That chamber, inaccessible except through a very narrow 12-meter chute, was the focus of our expedition in November. Since then, a team of scientists from Wits University — including me for the last two weeks — has been working on those bones. Every site represented in the Wits collection has a number; for example, Malapa is site 88. Every specimen plotted by the advance team during our November expedition was tagged in the cave, and given a number beginning with UW-101, for University of the Witwatersrand, site 101.
Every specimen, that is, except for four.
In the final days of the expedition, Rick [Hunter] and Steve Tucker had gone looking through the cave system for more fossils. They found a second area with bones, which we designated site 102. On the last day of our November run, this became the second hominin-bearing locality in the system when Marina Elliott and Becca Peixotto brought out four bone fragments that we could diagnose as hominin.

Lee Berger and Alia Gurtov are really the heroes of this story from last week, which you’ll read in that post. For me, I’m still taking baby steps at caving.

Lee Berger and Alia Gurtov
Lee Berger and Alia Gurtov

In the laboratory I’m a little more useful. It has been remarkable for me to work with the Rising Star material over the last two weeks. As the material came out of the ground last November we were naturally preoccupied by the work at hand, receiving and cataloging specimens, and doing basic osteology to identify them. What we did not get in the field was a good comparative overview of the collection.

That picture is only just beginning to emerge now. We still don’t know what this is. And that is pretty awesome.

We have only been doing preparatory work for the May workshop, which will carry out the initial description of the collection. Planning for the workshop to describe the fossils is going quickly now and I’ll describe some of that later.

In the meantime, I have been working over the last day or two to catch up with my ongoing massive course, Human Evolution Past and Future. The course is now on week 5, reviewing the cultural development of Middle Pleistocene humans, the genetics of modern human origins and the mystery of the Denisovans. We have shown more than 240,000 videos, and have had nearly 30,000 posts and comments in the class forum. I have a lot of work to catch up on this week, but so far things seem to be going very well.