Explorer of the Year: Discovering a New Species of Early Human

In 2013, two cavers exploring the Rising Star cave system in South Africa spotted what looked to be human fossils deep underground. They shared their photos with paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, who determined that the fossils were indeed early human remains.

He quickly orchestrated an excavation effort within a few short weeks to recover the fossils from the cave system. But the system was incredibly small and cramped, making it nearly impossible for Berger and his colleagues to enter it. So Berger put a call out on Facebook looking for petite scientists who could work in the dangerous and difficult environment. He ultimately assembled a group of willing and able women scientists to delicately unearth the fossils.

The team began uncovering fossils. A handful turned into dozens, then dozens turned into thousands. The specimens were pieced together and thoroughly studied for characteristics and clues. Ultimately, the remains were determined to be a new species of early human, Homo naledi. The hominin had a body mass and stature similar to australopithecines and later hominins, yet the location where the bones were found suggested that they could have been deliberately placed there at the time of or shortly after death.

The species’ surprising mix of primitive and modern traits altered existing assumptions about human ancestry and behavior and led to suggestions that early humans may have interbred more than previously thought.

Congratulations to Lee Berger, the 2016 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year.