ICON’s Hannah Morris contributes to landmark Homo naledi excavation

Hannah Morris, ICON & Forestry and Natural Resources PhD student, is part of the archeological team that discovered fossils belonging to a new species of human. She describes her experience below:

   In the fall of 2013, I was working with the American Museum of Natural History on St. Catherines Island, Georgia. On October 6th, after spending hours excavating in a particularly tricky area, I did what many archaeologists do after a long day- I came in from the field, poured myself a beer, and logged into Facebook. At the top of my newsfeed was a job posting, and the words “caving”, “climbing”, and “South Africa” jumped out at me. Lee Berger was asking for archaeologists with extensive excavation experience, as well as caving and climbing abilities, to come work for him in a cave in South Africa. I grew up caving and climbing, and I had a lot of excavation experience in some challenging circumstances, but I didn’t know that much about working with fossilized material. On a whim, I crafted a short email, sent it off, and proceeded to finish my beer. I didn’t expect much to come of the situation, and I certainly didn’t expect to be on a plan to Johanessburg less than a month later.
   When I landed in South Africa in early November, I didn’t have much more information than on the day I applied for the job. I had done an interview with Lee, via Skype, where I was asked some very unusual questions and given just a hint of what we might be doing. He relayed how two recreational cavers had found a deposit of skeletal material inside one of the most remote chambers in the Rising Star cave system, in the Cradle of Humankind. He believed the remains could potentially be the most complete hominin skeleton ever discovered. However, this small chamber, now called the Dinaledi chamber, was so difficult to access that Lee himself could not fit through some of the passages. His goal, therefore, was to find a team of qualified excavators who were slender enough to reach the Dinaledi chamber and recover these fossils. A few days later, I received word that I was one of the 6 scientists from around the world who had been chosen to excavate this site. As my plane landed in Johanessburg, I have a vivid memory of staring out the window at the purple jacaranda trees that were all over the landscape. I blinked a couple of times and rubbed my eyes, wondering if I was actually asleep and this entire thing was a dream. Over the coming days, I would meet the other 5 scientists who would become colleagues and friends: Marina Elliot, Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, K Lindsay Hunter, and Elen Fuerriegel, all of whom happened to be women.
   The six “Undergound Astronauts”, as Lee dubbed us, trickled into Johanessburg and we began [to] train on a very important piece of technology that we would be using to record our excavation efforts in the cave. The journey to the Dinaledi chamber involves crawling through Superman’s Crawl, a short tunnel less than 25 centimeters high, climbing vertically up a 20 meter underground ridge called Dragon’s Back, and then descending through a narrow, 12 meter vertical chute that narrows to 18 centimeters (approximately 7 inches) wide at one point. This is not the kind of journey one can make with traditional archaeological excavation equipment, so we would be using a 3-D scanner to record the exact location and context of every piece of bone that we removed. The scanner is about the size and shape of an iron, and uses two cameras and a white strobe light to “paint” an area and capture enough pictures to develop a 3-D image. This scanner allowed us to document these remains with sub-millimeter accuracy, and it would also allow us to re-create the excavation and even the cave itself.
   On November 10th, after building a small ‘tent city’ above ground at Rising Star, we were finally ready to go underground and begin removing fossils. There were over 60 people involved in the expedition, including a huge number of cavers and other volunteers. The cavers were there to offer technical and logistical support, and to ensure that we were safe in our journeys through the cave and inside the chamber. That first day, the cavers spread themselves out at key points in the journey, and we staged the first excavator team to enter the cave. Marina left first, followed by Becca about 15 minutes later, and then it was my turn. We had been through several “dry runs” in the cave, even climbing up to the top of Dragon’s Back and the entrance to the chute, but none of us had actually been down the chute. As I left the surface, I smiled and waved at everyone in the Command Center, and ran down the hill to the entrance of the cave. I took a couple of steps out of the sunlight, and in the cool, dry air of the cave – and out of sight of the cameras- I stopped. It was quiet in the cave, but rather than feeling scary or foreboding, it felt like it was welcoming me back to someplace that I’d been before. I stood there, preparing myself for what was about to happen, and then I hurried down the first narrow hallways and through Superman’s Crawl. I put on my harness and clipped into the safety ropes, and climbed up Dragon’s Back. Then, at the top of the chute, I got into position for when Becca cleared the bottom.
   The first time that I made my way down the chute, there were a lot of bruises, scrapes, ripped clothing and cursing. There were crystals on the wall that were razor sharp, and protrusions that dug into my hips. I had to find that one exact way that my body would fit down through this space, and not dislocate anything in the process. I couldn’t always turn my head to look at where I was putting a hand or foot, because my helmet would get stuck in between the walls. At the very end, my chest was lodged in the last crack and I was exhaling slowly, to lower myself inch by inch into the chamber. My legs were dangling beneath me in this void, trying to find a hold on the wall to support my weight. I got one foot on the cave wall, and then I was in the Dinaledi chamber. As the days passed and I made this journey over and over again, there were less bruises and cursing, and I developed almost an intimacy with the cave. There was a routine, and a mental map, to every place that my hand or foot would go inside the chute, and there was a comfort to that. Rather than feeling trapped, it was closer to feeling held.
   Once we finally made it into the fossil chamber, our goal was to clear the loose and scattered fossils laying on the surface. Then, we were going to tackle the removal of the partial skull that was embedded in the sediment of the cave floor. The next week was a blur of activity, and remarkable discoveries. On the second day, we realized that we were not just dealing with the skeletal remains of one individual – there were remains of more than one hominin in this cave. By the end of the expedition, we would have excavated the remains of more than 15 individuals, from infants to elderly adults. We had multiple elements from almost every part of the body, a remarkable fact that will tell us so much about the growth and development of these hominins. We didn’t know exactly which species these hominids belonged to – that would take many more months of effort and analysis – but we suspected it might be a new species.
   The Dinaledi chamber is now the richest fossil hominin site on the continent of Africa, and one of the most well represented fossil species in the world. These numbers and facts now roll easily off of our tongues. Back then though, in November… it was all new and it was all happening so fast. I remember the look on everyone’s face when I came out of the cave and heard a rumor that we were dealing with something more than just one skeleton. I ran up to the entrance of the Science tent, where they were cataloguing and counting the fossil elements as they came up. The air was vibrating, and everyone was grinning, and John Hawks said, “We’ve got more than one.”
   Days later, after a particularly long afternoon in the cave, I was one of the last people out of the cave for the day. Everyone else had gone to the Science Tent to help out, or clean up. Lee, as always, had stayed in the Command Center tent to greet each person as they slowly hiked up the hill from the entrance of the cave. He gave me a hug, and said, as if it was completely normal, “We got another one today.” At that point, that took our count up to about 6 individuals. I just gave a tired smile, and started walking down to the kitchen area, untangling my helmet straps from my headlight battery pack. I got about halfway down the hill when it hit me. I had excavated and touched the remains of 6 individuals from our human lineage, who had lived and died and walked across the same rocky path that I was walking down. My legs stopped working, and I sank down to the ground. I don’t remember how long I sat there, alone, just staring at my hands. I think each of us had moments like this, when we were able to grasp for a moment the impact of what we were discovering. Sometimes, after an especially exciting day (like when Scott Williams showed up and asked where all the vertebrae were, and we appeased him by finding several large elements of the vertebral column) we would go down the road to Bushwhackers and celebrate with a few beers. Everyone would be talking and laughing, with different conversations splitting as we discussed how this was going to change science, paleoanthropology, and how we think about human origins. Every now and then there would be a quieter lull, as people looked out the windows of the bar at the hill off in the distance, and reflected on how Rising Star was changing us. There were tears, and smiles, and lots and lots of happy scientists.
   Just as incredible as what we were finding was how we were doing it. Paleoanthropology has traditionally been a dog-eat-dog world, where researchers closely guard their fossils and data, because hominin fossils are were rare. It can take decades for a discovery to be announced and for the results of analysis to be published. In contrast, at Rising Star, we had a team on the ground from the very beginning that was publishing live blog updates from the field. We were speaking with students, professionals, and other groups via social media, like Facebook, Skype, Twitter, etc. At night, the Command Center would turn into a field classroom, where various members of the team would be beamed into real classrooms around the world to answer questions. Because of some strong thunderstorms one night, I had a rough connection with Dr. Laurie Reitsema’s anthropology class here at UGA. I said, “I can’t hear you… but if you can hear me, stay on the line – this is what happened today…” Dr. Reitsema said they could hear the flapping of the tents in the background as I described going down into the cave and excavating a particular fossil element, and that the students were all on the edge of their seats. We have seen so many people, from first graders to professors, get excited and engaged with science through this project, and that has been one of the most amazing aspects of Rising Star.
   It’s not just the excavation that has been done in this more inclusive fashion. The analysis and publication were deliberately designed to promote more open access to science. The Rising Star Workshop, which took place in Johanessburg in May of 2014, included early career scientists from all over the world. These scientists analyzed the remains and produced a series of scientific papers detailing the anatomy, taxonomy, and context of these hominin remains. This analysis ultimately led to the conclusion that these fossils represent a new species of hominin within our own genus, Homo naledi, that deliberately disposed of their dead in this chamber. The taxonomy and context papers were recently released through the open-access journal eLife, less than 2 years after these fossils were initially discovered. In addition, 3-D morphs of fossil elements of Homo naledi are now available for free download. We believe that encouraging participation in the process of science, which includes providing access to fossil material and data, can only advance paleoanthropology.
   I can only say that I am truly honored and grateful to be part of such an incredible team. From the volunteers to the senior scientists, we would not have been able to make this discovery without all of the people involved. And now comes the really fun part – Homo naledi has a lot more to tell us about hominin evolution, what it means to be human, and how we came to be the way we are. I was recently asked if this discovery answers any big questions in paleoanthropology. Right now, what it’s mainly telling us is that there’s so much more out there to discover.

Click here for Hannah’s co-authored research article, UGA news release and related coverage.