In the family

Women play vital role in recovering fossils of new species of human kin

A new species of human ancestor, Homo naledi discovered northwest of Johannesburg. STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Fossils from at least 15 individuals of the same species of a new human ancestor called Homo naledi have been recovered from the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa, the largest hominin fossil discovery of its kind in Africa, National Geographic announced on Thursday. Nearly 1,500 fossils were discovered in a 30-foot chamber believed to be between two and three million years old, according to researchers from University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Though the age of the fossils is still unknown, they may represent one of the most primitive members of the genus Homo, which includes today’s humans. The fossils were recovered over two years by a team of six young women, chosen for their experience and slender frames — able to navigate the narrow chute that leads to the chamber. Professor Lee Berger, who ran the study, called the team his “underground astronauts.” One of the women, American University PhD candidate Becca Peixotto, described the experience as “spectacular,” especially when a fragment of a skull was discovered in the center of the chamber. “It took days to excavate, and the removal of this fossil was complicated by overlying fossils. Late one evening, it was finally free from the soil and packaged in a box big enough to hold the fragment and small enough to fit [through the narrow cracks of the cave]. Then it was all hands on deck. . . . We formed a bucket brigade to pass the skull box up the chute, out the slot, down the Dragon’s Back . . . through the crawl, up another ladder, out to the surface. . . . There was huge cheering as it reached the light of day,” she explained.

Read the full story at National Geographic.

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