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If you’re anything like me, last week you woke up to the astonishing news that scientists discovered a new species of human in a cave in South Africa, and you thought Holy Christ, how did those people survive so long in that cave, how did no one realize they were in there, and most importantly, even though they’re a different species would it still be considered bestiality if we have sex with them?
And then, again, if you’re anything like me, you woke up a bit and read the article and realized that all the members of this new species have been dead for quite some time, so having sex with them would I guess be necrophilia. Or maybe osteophilia because they’re just bones.
Realizing they were dead was a bit of a downer, but then as I read more, the story got amazing again thanks to how these bones were discovered. The lead researcher, Lee Berger, was heavily criticized by others for staffing his Rising Star Expedition team with young and inexperienced researchers, and for finding the perfect team members by advertising on social media.
It made sense that he would cast a wide net, though, considering that the bones he needed to get were located deep inside a cave that required you to squeeze through a 7-inch diameter passageway and then another longer and more terrifying vertical and horizontal passageway that was about a foot in diameter, all 100 feet underground. So Berger needed a crew of archaeologists and paleontologists who were trained spelunkers and excavators who were tiny enough to fit through those passageways even while dragging their enormous metaphorical testicles. And as chance should have it, that entire team was made up of six truly badass women: Lindsay Eaves, Marina Elliott, Elen Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, Hannah Morris, and Becca Peixotto.
The huge number of bones brought back by these researchers are incredibly fascinating, because they show a species that complicates our evolutionary history, which is the most fun sort of scientific discovery you can make. The species is a mix of modern and ancient traits: it probably walked upright but also spent a lot of time in trees. It has front teeth like ours and back molars like our ancestors. It has a globular skull but a tiny little brain, which I will leave for you to make your own jokes, probably relating to presidential candidates or something.
And all this tells researchers that they need to be more careful at extrapolating from incomplete bones, because when you have the full set you may see that your specimen is very different from what you expected.
In other words, this expedition is some next level science, and so it’s particularly awesome that so many women will go down in history as having played an integral role in it. I know that if I had seen a story like this when I was a little girl, I would have been thrilled to know that my dream of being a mountain climbing ballerina scientist wasn’t as crazy as I was told. It’s too late for me, of course, but not for all the future mountain climbing ballerina scientists out there today.
Featured image: Venus over Rising Star Cave. Photo by John Hawks (@johnhawks) CC-BY-NC-ND. You can read John Hawks’ anthropology blog at johnhawks.net.