Scientists have discovered a new species of human ancestor deep in a South African cave, adding a baffling new branch to the family tree.
On September 13, 2013, two recreational cavers named Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter entered a dolomite cave system called Rising Star, some 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg. Rising Star has been a popular draw for cavers since the 1960s, and its filigree of channels and caverns is well mapped. Tucker and Hunter were hoping to find some less trodden passage. In the back of their minds was another mission.
In the first half of the 20th century, this region produced so many fossils of our early ancestors that it later became known as the Cradle of Humankind. Though the heyday of fossil hunting there was long past, the cavers knew that a scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg was looking for bones. The odds of happening upon something were remote. But you never know.
Deep in the cave, Tucker and Hunter worked their way through a constriction called Superman’s Crawl—because most people can fit through only by holding one arm tightly against the body and extending the other above the head, like the Man of Steel in flight. Crossing a large chamber, they climbed a jagged wall of rock called the Dragon’s Back. At the top they found themselves in a pretty little cavity decorated with stalactites. Hunter got out his video camera, and to remove himself from the frame, Tucker eased himself into a fissure in the cave floor. His foot found a finger of rock, then another below it, then—empty space.
Dropping down, he found himself in a narrow, vertical chute, in some places less than eight inches wide. He called to Hunter to follow him. Both men have hyper-slender frames, all bone and wiry muscle. Had their torsos been just a little bigger, they would not have fit in the chute, and what is arguably the most astonishing human fossil discovery in half a century— and undoubtedly the most perplexing—would not have occurred.
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