Human Origins

– You know, for me, being an explorer is about being curious. Actually, looking for things
to answer specific questions and that can be anything from, you know, who we are and why we’re here, to what can we do to, you
know, to keep the planet alive for future generations. (upbeat music) – [Narrator] In 2013,
Biological Anthropologist and emerging explorer, Marina Elliott joined an excavation
team, working to recover unidentified bones in South Africa. – [Elliott] I was the first
scientist to go into the cave once the actual remains
had been discovered. It’s pitch-dark, it’s quite warm, it’s a little bit sticky
because it’s very humid, and all you see, is what
you’re headlamp shows you, because you’re deep underground. – [Narrator] The effort was launched by National Geographic
Explorer-at-Large, Lee Burger. – I had no illusions that
this was gonna be easy. And I think, they were
terrified and I was terrified. They were still untested, we
took them through the caves, testing their capabilities in this system. – [Narrator] Lee Burger’s team is exploring a cave
system called Rising Star, in a region known as The
Cradle of Human Kind. The Cradle, is one of
several locations in Africa where humans are believed to have emerged. Located about 30 miles from
Johannesburg, South Africa, the cave is the site of
the single-largest cache of fossil hominins, ever
discovered in Africa. (light music) Excavations of Rising Star,
will prove extremely challenging with a variety of dangerous,
and claustrophobic terrain. (upbeat music) – The descent is difficult. And as I looked down, I
thought, “Oh, you know (laughs) “I don’t know if I can do this” but then once I was committed to go down, it was actually much, much
easier than I was dreading. – [Narrator] Elliott was recruited, not only for her scientific background, but because she was an experienced caver, who also met the physical profile required to navigate the cave’s narrow
passages and tight spaces. – [Elliott] I’m just trying to also slow it down a bit,
’cause I’ve got the GoPro running, so. – [Narrator] The team wasn’t exactly sure what they would find in Rising Star. (light anticipatory music) – I’ve seen a skull, I’ve
seen the other pieces, I am pretty sure that
we have got quite a lot of a skeleton of at least one hominin, – [Narrator] Possibly a single individual. Perhaps, Australopithecus. The human ancestral tree
is really more of a bush, full of off-shoots and deviations, and the present fossil record
suggests that sometime, between two and three million years ago, Australopits evolved
into the first members of the genus Homo. (energetic music) Paleoanthropologists are still working in places like Rising Star Cave to learn more about our
own species, Homosapiens. (energetic music) – First of all, the cave is beautiful, just geologically beautiful, and then you look down, and
there was just a sea of bone, and it was obviously
just not regular bone, (laughs) So, yeah, it was amazing, amazing. (slow poignant music) – [Burger] And it was surreal. Skull is being flagged. You can see the skull here (gasps) She’s now flagging the mandible and, And then the process started. The process of doing science began. – So we’ll put pin number
one right beside the mandible and that’s
where we’ll concentrate. Okay. Okay. Das is super. Okay. Thanks. Bye. (energetic music) – Yeah, that’s perfect, right there – [Elliott] Okay, good to start scanning. – Okay, scan. – I see what looks like a mandible in the middle
there, on the right. That looks fantastic. – [Narrator] The team initially predicted they would excavate the fossils of a previously discovered hominin. If not Australopithecus,
the perhaps, Homohabilis, but it was impossible to be 100% sure, until samples could be
closely examined above ground. (light anticipatory music) – [Burger] When they
opened that little box, and we unwrapped this
thing that they collected, every, great idea we had went out the window. Gone. – [Narrator] Throughout
the three-week excavations, it becomes remarkably clear, not only is there more than one skeleton, but it’s definitely not Australopithecus. – [Elliott] The material that
we recovered is abundant, so we have a very large amount of fossils, 15 hundred fossils, the largest single assemblage in history. – [Narrator] As more
fossils are unearthed, the picture of the creature of The Rising Star Cave begins to emerge. With the excavation of a skull, the team find they have
discovered a new species. A species they will call Homo naledi, or ‘star’ in the Sotho language for the cave, in which it was found. – [Elliott] Homo naledi is
what we call an early hominin, so, a distant, maybe, relative of humans, not necessarily on our own line, but a general relative,
or cousin, of ours. It existed in South
Africa somewhere around 350 to 250 thousand years ago. One of the things that
Homo naledi has really, I think, really done is, really reinforce for us that we don’t know what we thought we knew. For a long time, I think we thought we’d, sort of, wrapped it up. We had a bunch of fossils, we had what we thought
was a good story to tell, and what Homo naledi has done is, is kind of force a
whole-scale rethink of that. It’s actually, kind of
revolutionizing Paleoanthropology, but in a very, very good way, I think. (light anticipatory music)

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