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"Underground Astronaut" K Lindsay Hunter Shares Her Homo Naledi Expedition Story

 
Field Guide to the Cradle of Human KindLittle Village reporter Genevieve Heinrich recently caught up with K Lindsay Hunter, one of the “underground astronauts” who formed part of Lee Berger’s all-female expedition team to unearth the now famous Homo naledi remains from the Rising Star Caves in the Cradle of Human Kind World Heritage Site.

Hunter shares more about the expedition, as well as her background, training and thought-processes when she heard the call for a team of scientists to embark on what would be the adventure of a lifetime. When asked what it feels like being “neck-deep in one of the most profound scientific discoveries of our lifetime”, the biological anthropologist says:

“Honestly, my dearest wish at this point is to take either a long nap or a long horseback ride. I am passionate about outreach and communicating the science and excitement to classrooms, but being in the spotlight as an individual has not been something that I was prepared for, or have enjoyed.”

Hunter reveals that she is coordinating a book about the experience and the work of an underground astronaut and will aim it at inspiring school-age children. Originally from Iowa, she has now relocated to Johannesburg where she will be working on her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand, where Field Guide to the Cradle of Human Kind author Berger is also stationed.

Read the article to find out more about this remarkable woman:

Can you tell me a little bit about your decision-making process when you first saw the call for scientists? How long did it take you to know that this gig was something you truly wanted?

I saw the Facebook ad from Lee reposted on the AAPA (American Association of Physical Anthropologists) page in the wee hours of the morning on October 7, 2013, as I was pulling an all-nighter writing medical web content in a coffee house in Austin, TX. I re-shared the ad, tagging Lee, and immediately DM’ed it to my friend, Vance, who is a small and wiry skater that had just completed his PhD in paleoanthropology from Tulane. I had already left the program at UI and no longer thought of myself as being a part of the field.

However, as a historian and avid adventure reader, Lee’s call was immediately evocative of the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition ad, which read: “MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” So, when a couple of days later, Lee thanked me for sharing in my comments, I took a chance and replied that I thought I could do it. He said that my reasoning sounded good and to go ahead and send my CV on. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meet the other members of the Rising Star expedition team:

Spelunking in a dark, labyrinthine cave is a tough ask at the best of times. Add fossil excavation through an 18-centimetre wide gap into the mix and you have a job that only a handful of people in the world can do.

Enter the underground astronauts.

This all-women crack team of six ‘trowelblazers’ was assembled thanks to an extensive social media campaign. The combination of job requirements was unique: a master’s degree or higher in palaeontology, archeology or an associated field; caving experience; and the ability to fit through an 18-centimetre ‘squeeze’ in the cave in order to reach the Dinaledi Chamber.

It just so happened that, out of more than 50 applicants, the people most qualified for the job were all young, slender women.

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Image courtesy of EWN