Social media and other online sites exploded after the unveiling of Homo Naledi, a new ancestor which could change the course of human evolutionary history. Some surprising facts were revealed during the unveiling. But I was even more surprised to find out that I had access to an inside source, someone who had actually been a part of the excavation team. She is my work colleague, just two offices down from my own. I sat down with her to find out more about her role in the project. Michael Bratt reports.
By day Sharron Reynolds is a financial manager, dealing with the financial affairs of the Iconic Group (Wag the Dog Publishers, owners of The Media Online and The Media, are part of the Group). But by night and on the weekends she is an avid caver and it was through this that she became involved in the Homo Naledi project.
We start at the very beginning as she explains that Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker went caving in Rising Star. They decided to explore a new passage that they had never been down before. Even though it was a tight squeeze (more on that later) they made it into a cavern where they found a jawbone. To them it didn’t look animal in nature and they took a picture of it, which eventually made its way to Professor Lee Burger at Wits University.
Burger, wanting to unearth more, sent out a call on Facebook looking for scientists; the criteria was they had to be petite and they had to have caving experience. A team of six female scientists was assembled, along with 60 other people. That’s where Reynolds joined the excavation. She is part of the Speleological Exploration Club (SEC), which is part of the South African national caving body, and Burger contacted them to help with safety and other logistics during the project. Reynolds and other club members laid infrastructure such as ladders, lighting and the live feed system which allowed people on the surface to observe the excavation in real time. They also assisted in taking things to the scientists and removing bags of bones from the cave. Reynolds proudly says she carried numerous bags containing the bones out of the cave and, “I took earbuds to the scientists!”
But accessing the bones was no easy task. The passage, which was the entrance, to the cavern is 200 metres from the cave entrance. To get there cavers have to go through a section called Superman Crawl. They also have to traverse a structure called Dragon’s Back, which looks down into the passage leading to the cavern. As mentioned before, the scientists had to be petite. The opening to the cavern was down a very narrow chute, at its thinnest point measuring 19cm wide. The chute drops approximately 18 metres into the cavern. The six scientists as well as Hunter and Tucker were the main members of the party who entered and did work in the cavern. Reynolds did not actually go into the cavern where the bones were but sat on Dragon’s Back for a lot of the time lowering things down the chute to the scientists and pulling bags of bones and other equipment up.
“I could have got down the chute easily, gravity will do most of the work for you. But I was worried about getting back up,” Reynolds says. This was not Reynolds first time seeing the chute. She has been caving in the Rising Star system at least 150 times and has even sat on Dragon’s Back looking down the chute before. “If you tell me there is something down there I will go have a look, but I wasn’t going to just go down there without knowing first what was there,” she says.
However evidence shows that some cavers had already entered the cavern before as there were markers present. The scientists suggest that they either didn’t know what they were looking at if they saw the Homo Naledi bones, or the bones were covered in sediment when the other cavers ventured in and after they left the sediment eroded away exposing the bones. There were 15 specimens uncovered during the project, including babies, children, young adults and adults, both male and female.
Reynolds spent two and a half days, out of the 21 total days, at the project. During her time there, aside from assisting with the aforementioned tasks, she also had the opportunity to converse with the scientists who explained what they were looking for and what the different bones they found were. She says that initially they were looking for other types of bones in the cavern to indicate the presence of animals, or teeth marks on the Homo Naledi bones. They also looked at whether there were any indications that the Homo Naledi bones had been broken before they entered the cavern.
Finding no indication of any of this the scientists theorised that the cavern was used as a burial chamber. This theory is very important as it demonstrates that Homo Naledi was intelligent enough to bury its own, especially since the bones were all together in one cavern. After the excavation was completed, Reynolds and the rest of the team were sworn to secrecy for 18 months, which she says was a very hard ask.
Reynolds recalls her experience of interacting with Burger and the rest of the scientists. “He is such a nice person and very hard working. He was always the first one awake in the mornings and he would wake you up with a cup of coffee. What struck me about the scientists was how they were such normal people. At night around the campfire, one of them would be playing a guitar. They were also all specialised in different areas with one focusing only on teeth and the other only on limbs etc.”
Reynolds is quite an experienced caver having been a member of the SEC since 2004. In her first year of membership she went on 49 Wednesday night caving trips alone. In total she has been on approximately 450 caving trips in at least 50 different caves in South Africa. She says she joined because after she went on her first caving trip she realised, “Caving is one of the only sports I am actually good at. It’s also very interesting and fun.” She also says that she is terrified of heights but this does not matter when caving as, “You can only see as far as your flashlight in a cave.” Reynolds also has quite a bit of a reputation in the caving community, “Don’t follow me in a cave or you’ll get lost. There’s actually a saying in the caving community, don’t follow the red as when I cave I usually wear red overalls. I’m a good follower.”
She also recalled the time she got stuck for 20 minutes in a part of the Rising Star system, at a section known as Pinch and Punch. Reynolds says her most notable accomplishment in caving is that she has a cavern named after her in the Armageddon cave. “I was one of the first people down in the Armageddon cave, the oldest known cave in Southern Africa and one of the deepest in South Africa. The cavern is called Sharron’s Cove as I was the first person to enter it.”
When assessing the outcome of the project it is very interesting. The land where the cave is was purchased by Wits University. The cavern has been gated for security purposes and so that further exploration and excavation can take place. Both Hunter and Tucker were given full time jobs by Wits University as cavers, whose job is to look for other bones. Hunter also met his wife, one of the scientists during the project. Reynolds says, “Right from the beginning everyone knew it was a massive discovery.”
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