'Ancient hominid' treasure trove found in Cradle

27 November 2013 - 02:18 By SCHALK MOUTON
ENGROSSED: Rising Star expedition team members keep a close watch on the activity of colleagues working in a small cave at the Cradle of Humankind yesterday Picture:
ENGROSSED: Rising Star expedition team members keep a close watch on the activity of colleagues working in a small cave at the Cradle of Humankind yesterday Picture:
Image: LAUREN MULLIGAN

Wits palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger's latest find is a superbly preserved cache of ancient hominid remains.

The hominids are close ancestors to humans.

Berger's team of scientists retrieved the hominid fossils in a deep cave at the Cradle of Humankind, northwest of Johannesburg, a few weeks ago.

The team was assembled last month for the Rising Star expedition, the first stage of which came to an end yesterday.

Berger's team must now identify, date and sort more than 1000 excavated specimens.

When they entered the cave early last month they expected to find a skeleton or two but found much more.

"This site is now the richest early hominid site in Southern Africa," said Berger.

For the past 21 days, six women - all skilled cavers and archaeologists - worked seven-hour shifts in a cave of less than 2m², 11m below the surface.

The humidity in the cave is about 99% and the temperature a steady 18C.

"We have more material recovered from here . than from any other site, including Sterkfontein and Swartkrans," Berger said.

Berger became an explorer-in-residence for National Geographic in August.

He shot to fame in 2008 when he identified the complete skeleton of an early hominid, Australopithecus sediba.

The sites of these two discoveries are only 15km apart.

"There is an entire [unexplored] world that lies just beneath here," said Berger of the Cradle of Humankind.

Geologist Pedro Boshoff found the cave in which the latest finds were made.

He said there were at least 400 other caves in the area, which is between Krugersdorp, on the West Rand, and Centurion, near Pretoria.

He would not speculate on the age and species of the newly discovered fossils, or estimate how many more were likely to be found, but said their state of preservation was "superb" and that they were "ancient hominids".

"We have not even scratched the surface . of this system. This work will go on for decades and decades and decades.

"This deposit is rich beyond our imagination," he said.

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