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Saturday, June 15, 2024

UW-Madison members part of South African dig strike fossil gold

Participating in any archeological expedition requires a lot of skill and expertise in order for it to be successful. However, a dig that recently took place in northeastern South Africa had an especially unique qualification for any potential archeologists or excavators—the ability to squeeze through a tiny space called the International Postbox and repel down into a cavern named The Cradle of Humankind for its remarkable contents approximately 30 meters below.

The expedition took place last fall and was led by Lee Berger, a National Geographic explorer and human evolution professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Berger carefully selected his team after reaching out to individuals through a variety of social networking sites like Facebook and Linked-In. His goal was to send people down into the deep network of caves and retrieve over a thousand fossils of hominin remains.

Two University of Wisconsin-Madison community members recieved the opportunity to be a part of this ambitious project. UW-Madison anthropologist, John Hawks, assisted as an evolutionary expert in the tent where the fossils were examined. Also playing a part in the fossil recovery was UW-Madison graduate student, Alia Gurtov, one of six individuals chosen from a pool of 60 applicants, whose job it was to retrieve remains from the excavation site.

“[Berger] was looking for highly experienced archaeologists capable of dropping everything to come to South Africa,” Gurtov said about being extended an invitation to join the dig.

Gurtov was selected based on her spelunking and climbing experience, ability to work well with others and most importantly, because she is able to fit through the International Postbox, which is just 18 centimeters wide.

“The climb into the cave eventually became so comfortable, we began referring to it as our daily commute. Initially, however, I can safely say we all had butterflies.There are many places along the descent and ascent where helmets only fit when turned sideways,” Gurtov said about her adventurous trek.

After the dangerous descent to the caves was accomplished, the scientists were able to tackle the most important part of the expedition: retrieval of the fossils. Luckily, the fossils were not trapped in concreted sediment like they are more typically found. Instead they were buried either in dirt or laid on the surface of the caves.

“Because the space is cramped and the excavation well-funded, we used a 3D white-light scanner to map the surface with the bones in place, and then again as each bone was exposed and removed. At this point, we would suggest an initial identification and write ID numbers on tags for each separate specimen,” said Gurtov.

Those fossils were then handed over to experts such as John Hawks for more detailed examination and classification.

The remains that were retrieved from the cave are hominins, which is the term for members of the human clade since its split with the ancestors of chimpanzees and bonobos. The examination of these fossils will result in a better understanding of human kind’s evolutionary history which is why there was such enthusiasm from the project’s team members.

“I have the great fortune to be among those who breathe rarefied air as an excavator of hominims. Plural,” Gurtov said.

On top of being largely successful with their retrieval of the hominin fossils, Berger’s team also made a noteworthy effort to be extremely open with their findings and processes. The team utilized sites like Twitter to update people on their work. They also had blogs and video posts on National Geographic’s website.

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“I loved being able to talk about this discovery with students in classrooms all over the world. I loved the actual physical work of exposing bones that have been buried for millennia,” Gurtov said on her experience in South Africa.

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