The Aussie Scientist Who Helped Discover A New Species Of Human

The 26-year-old paleoanthropologist was part of the team who found the first fossils of Homo naledi

When Australian paleoanthropologist Elen Feuerriegel saw a Facebook advertisement calling for “tiny and small specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills,” she didn’t hesitate to apply.

At just 1.6 metres tall, 52 kilograms in weight and working on a PhD in human evolutionary biomechanics, the 26-year-old seemed tailor made for the job.

The ad’s author was Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, who was looking for people with excellent excavation skills to become “underground astronauts”.

The job? To bring more than 1,500 fossils of a hominin from a chamber in a cave system called Rising Star near Johannesburg to the surface.


Elen Feuerriegel with a Homo naledi skull
[Image: Twitter/Elen Feuerriegel]

Elen Feuerriegel and five other women – Hannah Morris, Marina Elliott, Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, Lindsay Eaves – were chosen for the 21-day adventure of a lifetime.

The expedition saw them crawling through extremely narrow tunnels – hence the call for tiny spelunkers – to a chamber filled with the largest collection of human relative fossils ever discovered in Africa.

The find, which includes the bones of at least 15 individuals, led to the naming of a new member of the Homo genus, Homo naledi.


The Rising Star cave system, where Elen and her fellow cavers spent 21 days
[Image: National Geographic]

So what was it like inside the cave? According to Elen, the key feature is dust. Lots and lots of dust.

“On the infrared camera displays in the Command Centre, it looks as though it’s snowing,” she tells National Geographic.

“It’s not oppressive by any means but you quickly become accustomed to feeling like you’ve taken half the cave with you in your nostrils at the end of the day.”

It’s then a tight squeeze at the first big obstacle inside the cave, where only the smallest of the team could make it through. Elen estimates the clearance is a mere 20 to 50 centimetres in some parts.

Despite such a challenging expedition, Elen makes it clear the team had the time of their lives, revealing, “what doesn’t get translated to the surface so well despite the video surveillance and communications systems in place is how much fun we all have talking and joking with one another as we work.”

“We are united by our science and the adventure of discovery. There’s nothing greater than that.”

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