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Hannah Morris Introduces Us to Homo Naledi [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS]

Oct 22, 2015 04:01 PM EDT
Hannah Morris
Hannah Morris inside Rising Star cave where the Homo naledi fossils were discovered.
(Photo : Provided by Hannah Morris)

Crawling through narrow cave walls and into crevices in complete darkness is a normal day's work for archaeologists searching for fossils. Sometimes, however, what's needed is a talented specialist to burrow into the tiniest of crevices. That was the case in November of 2013 in the fossil-rich chamber of Africa's Rising Star cave, when University of Georgia (UGA) Ph.D. student Hannah Morris squeezed her diminutive frame through an 18-centimeter-wide opening into a chute-like crevice to spend days searching for buried fossils. 

The results of her heroic efforts and those of her colleagues and supervisor, Lee Berger, from South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, were 1,550 fossil fragments belonging to at least 15 individual skeletons of a new human ancestor, subsequently dubbed Homo naledi – a paleoanthropological jackpot.

Rising Star cave lies in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, roughly 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. Knowing that the cave held unique evidence of a human ancestor, Berger assembled a team of specialized paleontologists and archaeologists, Morris among them, that could fit into the cave and recover the hidden treasure.  

Immediately after receiving her Bachelor's in Anthropology at UGA, Morris threw herself into field work, spending so much traveling – summers in Alaska and winters in Mexico – that she earned the nickname "shovel bum."

In 2008, she joined the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, with whom she has conducted field work along the coast of the state of Georgia on the Barrier Islands for the past seven years. To further focus her research, she went back to get her Master's in Anthropology from Ohio State University in 2010.

Now somewhat of a celebrity in the paleontology world, Morris shares with Nature World News her experience in Rising Star cave and her work on the expedition that has since changed her life. (Scroll to read more...)

Women Excavators
(Photo : Wits University)
The six women who excavated hominin fossils from Rising Star cave.

NWN: What was the Rising Star Cave expedition like?

MORRIS: "It was amazing. I've been on a lot of digs, I've worked all over North America, but I've never been on a dig quite like Rising Star. It was a special experience to work so closely with the other five scientists who are excavators and form a really nice bond [with them].

"So, the six of us have probably handled more fossil hominin remains than anyone else that has ever lived. We were pulling the bones up ourselves, from the sediments in the cave."

Tell us about your specific role in the Rising Star excavation? 

"The six of us women, we all have basic archaeological training, so we were what we've been calling the primary excavators. We were responsible for excavating the material, and then there were some different roles that we shifted around throughout the project, but mainly we were responsible for recording all of the information about the remains before we actually moved and excavated them.

"Basically, all six of us did those things underground during the course of the excavation. Then we had a lot of other people there to support and help us in that mission. A lot of volunteers who were either archeology or paleoanthropology students; a lot of cavers, who were volunteering their time and energy, so those folks ran fossils to the surface or brought us water below ground. But the six of us mainly had the same job, which was to safely excavate the fossils." 

What did you expect going in? 

"I didn't really know quite what to expect. When I left Atlanta and got on a plane for South Africa, I thought that we were going after what might be the most complete hominin skeleton that had ever been recovered. Of course, by the second or third day, we knew we had more than one individual, so things really picked up.

"When I landed, I had a lot of questions about what the cave was like, what the excavation conditions were going to be like, and what the actual fossils were going to be like. I think we were just all riding by the seat of our pants."

What else did you have to do to prepare? 

"Well, I have had some experience in excavating human remains, so I have a pretty decent grasp of human and hominin anatomy. But some of the other women [excavators] are paleontologists and they have an amazing and detailed knowledge of hominin anatomy and physiology.

"Basically, there are certain traits you can look at, in terms of the bones, to separate them [hominin] from modern humans. In particular, we had a fragment of the jaw that was one of the first pieces we saw and photographed. Even just looking at a photograph, you can see specific characteristics of the teeth that differentiate that hominin jaw from modern humans. So, we knew going into it that it was an ancient hominin, not a Homo sapiens

"We didn't do too much analysis in the field, and certainly not in the cave. Our job was to basically get the fossils from the chamber to the surface, and we were trying to do that as efficiently and as safely as we could. So, up top they had more time to do a preliminary analysis, photograph them and look at some of the other characteristics. That's where the senior scientists were." 

How long did the excavation last? 

"We were excavating for 21 days, so we were in South Africa for just about a month. We had a little bit of time in the beginning to learn how to use some of the technology, like the 3D scanner."

Was it dangerous to be in the cave? How did you feel?

"Yes, it was incredibly dangerous, actually. To get there [the main fossil chamber] it takes between 30 and 45 minutes. The route involves climbs and drops, so you definitely have to be very present and aware of how you are moving, and try to keep in mind safety at all times. Any injury inside the cave can be catastrophic, because you have to get out [of the cave] basically under your own motive power -- it's not some place you can just get a back board in and carry someone out, it's much more difficult than that. So, one of the contingency plans that we had in place for us if we broke a bone or cracked some ribs, was to actually send a doctor into the cave to live with us until we healed. So, it was a very dangerous environment, just getting to the fossil chambers." 

Do you think there is still more to find? 

"Yeah, there definitely is. We know there are still remains. We are not exactly sure how much, but in the sidewalls of our excavation area we can still see bones, so we think there is still a fair amount of material left in the chamber.

"There will continue to be research done there, but when exactly that starts back up I am not sure.  I think for now we're just trying to catch our breath and re-assess [which will] help us approach the site, because it is so unique and so rich. There are decades, if not hundreds, of years left of work in the site."

Since there is so much left, how did the team decide they had collected enough?

"Well, originally we thought we were only going after one skeleton. So we had planned the whole expedition around that premise. As the expedition went on, and we realized we had so much more material than we were anticipating, we started talking about how we were going to shut the dig down.

"All of us had flown in from our real jobs and our real lives for a month-long excavation, so there were some real logistical issues to consider. We decided it was best to put things on pause for a moment and take some time to re-assess. Once we knew we could secure the cave and that the fossils would be safe in that environment, [for example] we could build physical barriers so that people couldn't get into the place and there wouldn't be running water coming into the cave [which would erode the fossils], then we just took measures to wind things down."

Would you go back?

"Yeah, I would love to. We are all still involved [with the project] in different ways and to different degrees. Again, I am not a paleoanthropologist, so I would love to go back and excavate and hang out; that would be great and fun, but I think we are all also interested in cultivating some young talent in South Africa, and trying to get some students interested in this project and give them some opportunities. So I hope to be involved in kind of a different way, [maybe] through the restoration of the land around the cave. I am going to still be involved in the future, but my role might be changing." 

What are you doing now?

"I am back at the University of Georgia. I am in a completely different department working with plant ecologists. I have been studying plant remains from archeology sites for the past couple of years, and I am now working on a project that involves a little bit of ecology and a little bit of archeology."

How has this experience changed you?

"It has definitely changed my life in a lot of ways. When I applied for it and left for South Africa, I just thought it sounded like a fun dig and a great adventure, and thought I might have some good stories to tell when I got back. I really didn't have an idea that it would turn into this. I've met some really amazing folks and I've made some great friends and colleagues. I think more than anything it has showed me what a team can accomplish. We had so many people involved in this project, and so many moving parts, and [everyone] gave so much effort and time to make this expedition happen. That's the lesson I've really taken away from this; I've worked on some great teams before, but this was on a whole different level. 

"In terms of my future, I hope that there are going to be some great opportunities for things I didn't even know I was interested in." 

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