The Underground Astronaut

ALUMNI

In 2013, Hannah Morris (MA, anthropology, 2012) answered an ad on Facebook posted by Lee Berger, professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, for archaeologists with caving and climbing abilities to work in South Africa. A few weeks later, Morris, who is studying for a PhD in archaeology at the University of Georgia, was on a plane to Johannesburg to work inside one of the most remote chambers in the Rising Star cave system at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. 

“Lee believed that the Rising Star cave contained the largest assemblage of fossil human relatives ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa,” said Morris. “However, the chambers were so difficult to access, and Lee needed a team of qualified excavators who were slender enough to reach the chambers and recover these fossils.”

Morris joined five other scientists from around the globe chosen to excavate the site. These women — Morris, Marina Elliot, Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, K. Lindsay Hunter and Elen Feuerriegel — were dubbed the “Underground Astronauts.” The 21-day excavation began in November 2014.

“I had excavated and touched the remains of six individuals from our human lineage who lived and died and walked across the same path that I was walking down. I sank down to the ground staring at my hands. I think each of us had moments like this, when we were able to grasp for a moment the impact of what we were discovering.” {Hannah Morris}

The journey to the Dinaledi Chamber involves navigating through Superman’s Crawl — so-called because most people can move through the tunnel only with one arm extended in front and one at their side in a Superman pose, then climbing vertically up a 20-meter underground ridge called Dragon’s Back, and then descending through a narrow, 12-meter vertical chute that is only 20 centimeters (approximately 7.9 inches) wide at one point.

When alumna Hannah Morris answered an ad on Facebook for archaeologists with excavation experience, little did she know that she would find herself in a cave in South Africa and help uncover what could possibly be a new species of a human relative.
When alumna Hannah Morris answered an ad on Facebook for archaeologists with excavation experience, little did she know that she would find herself in a cave in South Africa and help uncover what could possibly be a new species of a human relative.


“The first time I made it down the chute, there were a lot of bruises, scrapes, ripped clothing and cursing,” remembered Morris. “There were crystals on the wall that were razor sharp, and protrusions that dug into my hips. I couldn’t turn my head to look at where I was putting a hand or foot, because my helmet would get stuck in between the walls.” 

Once Morris finally made it into the fossil chamber, her goal was to clear the loose and scattered fossils lying on the surface. Local cavers helped thread two miles of communication and power cables down into the fossil chamber to allow Berger and his team, located on the surface, to view what was happening in the chamber. 

“On the second day, we realized that we were not just dealing with the skeletal remains of one individual — there were remains of more than one hominin [human relative] in this cave,” said Morris. 

By the end of the expedition, Morris and her fellow “astronauts” had excavated some 1,550 specimens in all, representing at least 15 individuals, from infants to elderly adults. These remains contained multiple elements from almost every part of the body, a remarkable find that would tell the story of the growth and development of these hominins. 

In May 2014, at the Rising Star Workshop in Johannesburg, scientists from around the globe analyzed the remains from the Dinaledi Chamber excavation and produced a series of scientific papers detailing the anatomy, taxonomy and context of the hominin remains. This analysis ultimately led to the conclusion that these fossils represented a new species of hominin, Homo naledi, that deliberately disposed of their dead in this chamber. 

“I was truly honored and grateful to be part of such an incredible team,” Morris said. “And now comes the really fun part — Homo naledi has a lot more to tell us about hominin evolution, what it means to be human and how we came to be the way we are.” 

The Dinaledi Chamber is now the richest fossil hominin site on the continent of Africa, and home to one of the most well-represented fossil species in the world. 

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