Find could be SA’s next big discovery

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Copy of ST  p4main Wits Lee Berger 028.JPG INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS READY TO DIG: Professor Lee Berger and the Rising Star Expedition team members at Wits University. Picture: Itumeleng English

Johannesburg - A photograph snapped three storeys down in a cave could have revealed South Africa’s next big palaeoanthropological find.

And now a team of six women recruited through social media will be heading underground to bring it out.

But these aren’t ordinary women: they were selected because of their caving and excavation skills.

Only those with an 18cm or smaller bust were chosen, so tomb raider Lara Croft would have failed selection. The women will have to squeeze into and work in small spaces.

On Wednesday, the team – wearing caps emblazoned with the name Rising Star Expedition – were presented to the media at Wits University’s palaeosciences building.

They were to head out on Thursday to the secret site, and the excavation – a collaboration between Wits and National Geographic – is to begin soon.

The leader of the expedition, Professor Lee Berger, is not revealing what is in the cave.

“At this stage we can’t say what it is, but considering the amount of resources we are putting into this, it is big,” said Berger, who revealed the discovery of Australopithecus sediba three years ago.

All he would say was that the fossils were found on the cave floor and they are hominin.

The cave, called the Rising Star cave, is in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site.

On Wednesday, Berger told journalists that the expedition had been organised in a matter of weeks. This was after a team led by Pedro Boshoff, who had been sent out by Berger to scout new caves, stumbled on the site and found the fossils.

“No discovery like this has been made in South Africa,” Berger said.

A team had to be assembled quickly as he was concerned about the cave’s stability, the approaching rainy season and the possibility that the fossils might be stolen.

“I realised history would not judge us well if I did not remove them,” he said.

To find the right people for the job, he turned to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and ended up with 57 applicants, from which six were chosen.

“It was coincidence that 80 percent of the those who applied were women. Maybe it is because they had the right body size,” Berger said.

One of the six is Dr Lindsay Eaves from the University of Iowa in the US.

“This is going to be extraordinary, we will be scanning everything as we go down,” she said.

The team will be using a host of new technologies in the cave, some of which have never been used before.

Another team member, Dr Marina Elliott, from Simon Fraser University in Canada, said they would most probably work in shifts of two at a time because of the confined space.

There would be other team members at the ready to assist them if something went wrong. Mine rescue proto teams could be called on in an emergency.

“I thought about not bringing sunscreen because be will be working underground. But I decided to anyway,” laughed Eaves. - The Star

Updates on the excavation will be provided on a blog managed by National Geographic and this can be found at http://newswatch.nationalgeo

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