Newest Members of the Human Family Tree

–submitted by Andrea Kaminski; photo by John Bonsett-Veal

John Hawks 8 31 16UW Anthropology Professor John Hawks (pictured here with Club President Michelle McGrath) told of an astounding find of early hominid bones in a cave in South Africa. He worked with Lee Berger, with National Geographic, whom he described as a foremost scholar in human evolution. With a strong commitment to educating the public about science, the National Geographic and University of Wisconsin media have covered the work since the beginning in 2013, including the amazing moment when bones were detected in the cave.

With two kilometers of underground passages, the Rising Star cave has been explored for more than 70 years. One Friday night in 2013 the team “stumbled” upon fossils in a part of the cave they had not previously explored. The bones included a mandible that was very likely that of a hominid.

Hawks explained that caving requires unique skills (not to mention morphology) that allow people to squeeze through extremely narrow passages. The scientists recruited a team of six cavers, including one UW graduate student. It appeared that all of the team members were women.

A schematic of part of the cave showed extremely narrow tunnels, including Superman’s Crawl, which is less then 10 inches in height, and Dragon’s Back, which is only 7.5 inches wide, with jagged walls and a steep vertical descent.  At the bottom, they found the bones. Moreover, they realized they were looking at several skeletons. The workers painstakingly exposed the bones with paint brushes.

Unlike most other anthropological sites, there were no other animals represented among the bones. Hawks guessed that means the cave was a burial site with very limited access that kept animals out.

Hawks said this is the largest assemblage of hominid bones ever found, and the analysis will take significant time. The team has recruited more than 150 scientists from 15 countries. They have determined that the bones represent possibly the earliest branching of the human genus.

Hawks noted that the government of South Africa was very supportive of the work, sending its Vice President to the announcement along with school groups and others. Information about the project has been made available to the public worldwide through an interactive website. This is all very consistent with the Wisconsin Idea, Hawks concluded.

Did you miss our meeting this week?  Watch the video here.

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