A passion for exploring underground caves in Gauteng has turned into a full-time job for two friends who discovered ancient hominid bones that shed new light onto the origins of humankind.
Amateur cavers Ricky Hunter and Steven Tucker landed themselves jobs as the first underground explorers at Wits University after they squeezed their way 12m down a narrow crack in a darkened cave floor near the Cradle of Humankind in 2013 and found a treasure trove of bones believed to be 2.5 million years old.
The remarkable story behind the discovery of 1550 bones from children to adults of the world’s oldest hominid of our own genus – called Homo Naledi – has been inspiring Scifest Africa visitors.
Although large parts of the Rising Star cave network have been extensively surveyed over the past 50 years by members of the Joburg Speleological Exploration, the bones were not found until three years ago.
Hunter, 29, told the Dispatch yesterday that the two friends were not sure of the significance of the three molar teeth and other bones they saw 30m under the ground during their initial trip, so they left them behind for fear of damaging them on the return climb.
In their excitement, they neglected to take photos even though they knew the area, which is 2km from the Sterkfontein Caves where Mrs Ples and Little Foot were found, was rich in hominid fossils.
Excited by the find, the men squeezed their way back up the difficult 12m fissure, which ranges in width from 20cm to 25cm, and told Wits University expert and fellow caver Pedro Boschoff about the teeth.
He pleaded with the men to return and take photos of the bones and told colleague and world renowned Wits University paleoanthropologist Professor Lee Berger about the potential find.
“When Lee saw the photos, his jaw dropped,” Hunter explained.
Berger wanted to take a closer look at the bones, but he was not small enough to fit through the crack, so he sent his son, Matthew, down with Hunter and Tucker instead to take more photos.
An international team was soon put onto the task of unearthing the bones and Hunter even met and married his US wife on the job.
According to reconstructions of the bones, Homo Naledi was about 1.5m tall and weighed around 40kg. The bones are believed to date back 2.5 million years.
“The significance of a find like this is their relation to us and how similar they are to us. We share a lot of features, our teeth, hands and feet are very similar but the pelvis, chest and thorax of Homo Naledi is far more primitive.”
Hunter said only bones of Homo Naledi were found in the cave, leading experts to surmise that the dead were deliberately put down the fissure as a means of disposal.
Since the find exploration of the cave network has continued and Hunter said more finds had been made but had yet to be announced.
“I am terrified of getting stuck in elevators but am not worried to explore narrow cracks deep underground,” Hunter explained.
“I have squeezed through some areas where I have broken bones and even been stuck for two hours. Scifest visitors have loved hearing about our discovery.”