Monday, September 8, 2014
Tourists to gain access to excavations for hominid bones in South Africa
Viewing platform and webcams at Cradle of Humankind site will allow visitors to look into pit during digs for early human fossils
Paleoanthropologist Prof Lee Berger, who discovered the Australopithecus sediba, peers into the Cradle Of Humankind site in South Africa. Photograph: Barcroft Media
With brio and a brown fedora that have earned comparisons with Indiana Jones, Professor Lee Berger leaps into a pit where he is hunting the remains of our ancestors who lived here 2 million years ago.
Typically such digs have taken place in remote corners of Africa, their discoveries announced in scientific journals and eventually visible to the public only inside glass cases at museums. But this week Berger announced that tourists will soon be able to watch the search for fossils that could rewrite our understanding of evolution at the Cradle of Humankind, a UN world heritage site north-west of Johannesburg, South Africa.
"It will be, to my knowledge – and I'm pretty sure I've got a comprehensive one – the only place in the world where you can sit and watch early hominids being excavated," the US paleoanthropologist said. "I think that will be a very special thing. These fossils of early humans are extraordinarily rare. They are some of the rarest sought after objects on earth."
Berger, who in 2008 discovered the Australopithecus sediba species here with the help of Google Earth and his nine-year-old son Matthew, unveiled an elegant 3m rand (£171,509) structure that combines a mobile laboratory, a mechanism capable of lifting one tonne of rocks and a viewing platform allowing visitors to look directly into the pit.
Its proximity to South Africa's commercial capital makes it accessible to travellers in a way that would have been unthinkable when the Leakey family began uncovering fossils in rural Tanzania and Kenya.
Standing on the 14-metre-tall structure, conceived to blend amid the trees, Berger said: "Right on the edge of Johannesburg is a critical wilderness area with some of the most important fossil discoveries on the planet. We had to build a structure that does justice to that. Part of making it magnificent when you enter it is to do justice to the finds that it protects.
"The design had to recognise that it's undeniable tourism would occur here. These are rare locations so people wish to come to places where extraordinary things have been discovered and also to see the process."
The scientists working here are being trained as tour guides, he continued, and visitors will be taken on a game drive that shows the region's landscape, flora and fauna, as well as its paleoanthropological significance. The concept will be tested in the next six to eight weeks after an agreement with the family that owns the private reserve. "Fossils belong to the people of South Africa, found or unfound," Berger said.
There are also plans to set up webcams so that people around the world can follow the excavations via live streaming on the internet.
Berger and the site, known as Malapa, shot to fame when his son picked up a fossilised clavicle (collar bone) that, it transpired, belonged to the previously unknown Australopithecus sediba. A second skeleton was recovered soon after, and there is evidence of at least four more and even organic material.
"Rather than fragments, there were literally skeletons coming out of this site," the Wits University academic continued. "As we began to first just clear the old miner debris that was over this very tiny hole, we began to hit hominids every time we moved earth. It literally was littered with them. We moved from two skeletons to six without ever actually excavating. Those who follow this field will know extraordinary that is."
Given such density, there could be dozens of individuals under the ground, Berger believes, meaning that work will continue here indefinitely in search of answers. "This is 2 million years ago. We hypothesised when we first had the discovery of this site that this must be some form of death trap, a sinkhole they were falling in, because there's no carnivore or scavenging damage on these bones.
"That's exactly what these excavations will test: how does something so unusual and previously unique to our science occur? I can't answer that right now. Whether or not our first hypothesis will hold or not is hard to tell."
Malapa is just one of several sites at the Cradle of Humankind, best known for the hominid fossils the Taung Child and "Mrs Ples",examples of Australopithecus africanus from 2 to 3 million years ago. An expedition led by Berger in November uncovered an even richer hominid deposit than Malapa. "Those papers are presently under review so I really can't talk about them, but you won't have to wait long," he promised with a smile.