How the Naledi Team Solved a 1,550-Piece Puzzle

The announcement of Homo naledi last week was just the latest phase of a scientific adventure that’s been going on for two years in and around a tiny cave in South Africa.

It started in November, 2013, with the three-week long expedition to recover what National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger and team at first thought were bones from a single ancient hominin. We lived in tents, swapped theories around a fire, and I wrote about it all daily for this expedition blog. (Relive the discovery by reading the original posts in order.)

The scientists were chosen for their excavation skills and ability to fit through tight spaces. I’d like to think I was chosen for my writing skills, but being roughly Tom Cruise sized, I have a sneaking suspicion they may have had more practical “emergency uses” for me in mind.

Back in the Lab

The above video gives a glimpse of phase two of the project: a six-week workshop six months later, when established experts and early career scientists gathered in Johannesburg to make sense of the 1,550 fossil pieces the team had recovered. This time we were in hotel rooms, not tents, and the closest most of us came to getting into a cave was entering the newly renovated fossil vault at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Glass-fronted cabinets full of fossils and replicas lined the walls. The central area contained Tetris-like configurations of folding tables at which sat groups or pairs of researchers, each focused on a particular section of anatomy or area of analysis.

Several of the “Underground Astronauts” were there the week I visited: Elen Feuerriegel studying the arm and shoulder; Alia Gurtov tucked away in the “tooth booth”; Marina Elliott hosting a geologist down into the fossil chamber to investigate the context of the bones.

It was a diverse group —> Read More