Researchers from the University of Wisconsin joined National Geographic in uncovering an unprecedented number of fossilized bones in a cave in South Africa.
Six women, including UW graduate student Alia Gurtov, descended 30 meters underground to recover remains from some of the oldest hominins, or ancient humans, as part of National Geographic’s Rising Star expedition, according to a UW statement. The women found the remains in a cavern at the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site in northeastern South Africa that houses some of the oldest hominins, the statement said.
Gurtov said in an email to The Badger Herald she participated in the archaeological expedition, which consisted of a total of 60 people, and helped excavate more than a dozen hominins during the archaeological expedition.
Gurtov said it is currently unclear what species was discovered, the exact number or age of the individuals and the reasons for their presence in the cave. These questions will be addressed upon further examination and analysis of the fossils, she said.
According to the news release, calcite deposits created as the cave formed may help determine the fossils’ age.
Gurtov said the discovery is significant for many reasons.
“First, the sheer quantity of fossil remains from a single site, let alone a single excavation season, is almost unprecedented in Africa,” Gurtov said. “This find has the potential to answer old questions about human evolution and raise many new ones.”
Gurtov added instead of blasting a hole into the fossil chamber, team members made conservation a priority by selecting six “appropriately-sized” archaeologists to enter the cave and obtain the fossils.
Gurtov said her small size played a significant role in qualifying her for the project because the scientists had to squeeze down a chute that was never wider than a foot to enter the fossil chamber. This helped preserve the cave system for future scientists to enjoy, she said.
Gurtov said this discovery is significant because humans are unusual among primates in having delayed maturation, short inter-birth intervals and significant post-menopausal survivorship. These and other aspects of the evolved human developmental pattern can be addressed by taking a comparative look at the growth rates of their ancestors through fossils like the ones found in the cavern, she said.
Gurtov said analysis of the the fossils will begin now that the fossils are out of the cave.