Share it! Science : Who Are the "Underground Astronauts"?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Who Are the "Underground Astronauts"?


Can you imagine finding the discovery of a lifetime, but not being able to retrieve it? When cavers found ancient hominid fossil remains while exploring in South Africa, they knew they were on to something. Problem was, they knew they didn't have the archaeological skills needed to excavate the find. The researcher who did have the skills was too big to squeeze into the ridiculously tight crevices that lead to the cave...what were they to do?

As you have most likely seen or read, the National Geographic Rising Star expedition team studying the "Cradle of Humankind" near Johannesburg, South Africa, put out a call for skilled archaeologists with caving skills who were petite enough to fit into these small spaces. 6 highly qualified candidates emerged to take on the task, and they all happened to be women. This crew of ladies painstakingly excavated the site in a once and a lifetime opportunity and brought to the surface the skeletal remains of several new members of our family- Homo naledi

"Comparison of skull features of Homo naledi and other early human species" by Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, United Kingdom (10 September 2015). "The many mysteries of Homo naledi". eLife 4: e10627. DOI:10.7554/eLife.10627. PMC: 4559885. ISSN 2050-084X.. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons

These women had to crawl through spaces so tight it prevented them from wearing safety gear. Some sections were only 10 inches high and required what they call the "superman crawl" with one arm down by the side and one outstretched in front like superman flying. They took 6 hour shifts underground, working for a few weeks and eventually retrieved 1,500 specimens from the cavern.

"Homo naledi 2" by Lee Roger Berger research team. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons 


Let's find out more about each of these remarkable female scientists! When you have an adventure story like this it is a golden opportunity to inspire young scientists and adventurers. Who are the 6 "underground astronauts" of the Rising Star Expedition?



Elen Feuerriegel
Elen is a paleoanthropology PhD student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. She is interested in how early humans used tools, and specifically the muscle and bone structure of those people. She has been interested in the human body and forensic anthropology since she was a teenager. She loves to inspire kids and hopes to teach as well as continue working as a paleoanthropologist.

Learn more about Elen here:


K. Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter
Lindsay has a passion for paleoanthropology but also science outreach. The focus of much of her research has been in the evolution of the trunk portion of skeletons in the genus Homo. During the Rising Star expedition Lindsay was a PhD student at the University of Iowa. Lindsay is also a writer and is very interested in introducing anthropology to young students. She has moved to South Africa to live with her husband, Homo naledi fossil co-discoverer Rick Hunter, and continue to research.

Learn more about Lindsay here:

Marina Elliott
Marina is a postdoctoral fellow in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. During the excavation Marina was getting her PhD at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She has taken part in several expeditions in inhospitable areas such as Siberia and Alaska, as well as her recent excursions into the treacherous cave in South Africa. 
Her research focuses on the stories that human fossils can tell us about the life of that person and the archaeology of burial practices. As scientists believe the cache of Homo naledi fossils found by the Rising Star expedition were most likely intentionally left in the cave as part of a burial practice, her expertise will continue to be indispensable in studying this new branch of our family tree.

Learn more about Marina:


Alia Gurtov
Alia is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is trying to answer the question of whether people 1.8 million years ago were eating differently based on season. She examines animal teeth for scratches and wear which would indicate what season they were butchered during by our ancient relatives. Her love of playing in the dirt and ancient peoples made the Rising Star expedition a dream come true, but it is only one of the amazing excavations she has taken part in. She is a Leakey Foundation grant winner and has studied extensively at famed Olduvai Gorge in addition to many other sites.

Learn more about Alia:

Hannah Morris
Hannah is a PhD student at the University of Georgia. She is an archaeologist who studies how humans interacted with plants historically. She has worked on archaeological digs with the American Museum of Natural History and founded a paleoethnobotanical consulting service called Chena Consulting Services. In addition to her archaeology work she also has taught workshops for middle school students.

Learn more about Hannah:

Becca Peixotto
Becca is a PhD student at American University in Washington D.C. She is an archaeologist who studies the Great Dismal Swamp, along the Virginia-North Carolina border. This is an area that became part of the Underground Railroad and where escaped slaves took refuge. Little is known about these settlements and Becca is interested in solving this mystery. In addition to her work as an archaeologist, she is also a wilderness and outdoor educator.

Learn more about Becca:



These little blurbs just scratch the surface of these amazing women. I found myself enthralled as I learned more about them. I hope that they inspire you, your children and students as well!

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