One by one the bones were gently lifted from the padded containers, and placed very delicately, and in order, on the blue velvet cloth that would be their temporary resting place. It made a change from the calcified sediment that had cradled them for so long. The handful of people present were among the first in the world to watch the skeleton take shape in this way, and to see in it the form of the female who had died nearly 2 million years ago. It was a very special moment – extra special because until very recently it was not known that this species of hominid existed. It was only announced to the world on 8 April 2010. (Scientifically, ‘a hominid is a member of the taxonomic family that includes humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and their extinct ancestors.’)
On the 15 August 2008, Professor Lee Berger, from Wits University, visited the area in the Cradle of Humankind where he was conducting extensive research with his nine –year old son Matthew and an associate Dr Job Kibii. Almost immediately Matthew discovered a bone which Lee could identify as a hominid clavicle, or collarbone, as this had been the focus of his PhD thesis. Further investigations disclosed more fossil evidence, and uncovered not just the partial skeleton of a juvenile aged between 9-13 years, but also that of an adult female. The youngster, as a result of a world-wide competition won by Omphemetse Keepile from St Mary’s School in Waverley, has now been named ‘Karabo’, which means ‘answer’ in Setswana.
These two partial skeletons are said to be the most complete of any hominids dating back to about two million years ago, and are seen as one of the most significant discoveries in recent times. The excavations are not yet complete and the hope is that more material will be uncovered in the days and weeks ahead. Professor Berger and his team have named the species Australopithecus sediba – sediba being the Sotho for natural spring or well spring. The scientists see it as a transitional species between the southern African ape-man Australopithecus africanus and either Homo habilis or Homo erectus.
Their journey is said to have begun, all those years ago, when with other animals they fell into a deep cave. After a while the bodies were washed into an underground lake or pool, probably as a result of a powerful rainstorm. There the material around them solidified, rather like quick setting concrete, and held them for 1.95 million years, whilst the land around them eroded, and until Matthew came along. Sometimes there almost appears to be a sense of purpose in such events!
Lee Berger is a very open and charismatic man, excited about these discoveries and passionate about his work. Born in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, in the USA, he came to South Africa in 1989 and undertook his doctoral studies at Wits University under Professor Phillip Tobias. When I asked him what these discoveries meant to him personally he responded that, in years to come when all our names have been long forgotten, these two skeletons will remain a significant part of the discussion around the development of the species.
We are incredibly privileged to have these discoveries taking place within a relative stone’s throw of where we live. They are attracting enormous interest in both the scientific and the general world, and are opening up the past to us in new ways.
The Maropeng Centre in the Cradle of Humankind, where the female skeleton is presently on display, is a world-class site and well worth a visit. Each time I go I am even more amazed at, and in awe of, the glory and extent of Creation, and the wonder of the universe in which we are privileged to live. And then, to stand and look at the skeleton of what had been a living, breathing, child-bearing female almost 2 million years ago was a humbling experience. (And she was probably left-handed!)
Open your eyes – there are truths and there is Truth.