Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Struik Travel & Heritage

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for November, 2015

“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.

Also read:


Book details

Image courtesy of EWN

» read article

“You Don’t Get that Stress” – Table Mountain’s Baker Describes Working on a Wonder

British Airways’ inflight magazine High Life recently ran a feature on Cape Town’s beloved Table Mountain, asking seven Capetonians what the landmark means to them, accompanied by some fantastic photography by Michael Ellis.

“The Mountain”, as it is affectionately known, is an ancient icon – as Hoerikwaggo, the Khoisan word meaning “mountain in the sea” – and one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Octavia Tumeka Nkomombini, a baker who works at the lower Cableway station, supplying the café on top of the mountain and the kiosk, first visited the mountain as a baby with her father. Her next visit was 35 years later, for a job interview.

Nkomombini has to wake at 3.30 AM to prepare breakfast for her three children before leaving for work, but says: “Working here has changed me. One, it’s given me peace. [...] I feel like I’m blessed to work here, to have a place like this. You just don’t get that stress.”

Read the article:

‘I don’t get used to the cable car trip; every time I go, it’s like, wow! I still want to walk up one day; that’s in my plans. It is a wonder, Table Mountain. Everyone who comes here wants to come back; people from all walks of life. And the mountain influences us: it gives you peace, it makes you feel close to nature. I brought a friend from Kimberley last year. We took the lift up to level five. And there was this tourist by the cable car, and she grabbed him to pose [for a picture]. I thought, “What if he has a wife or girlfriend?” But he seemed to enjoy it.

For more on Cape Town and its wonders, see:

Seven Days in Cape TownThe Cape Town BookMy Cape Town ABCCape Town Then and NowWalking Cape Town


Book details

» read article

How Old is Homo Naledi? Young Scientist Tebogo Makhubela is the Man Who Will Tell the World

Field Guide to the Cradle of Human KindRedi Tlhabi recently spoke to Tebogo Makhubela, the scientist who will hopefully eventually tell the world how old Homo naledi really is.

The Soweto-born scientist is currently working on his PhD in geochronology and landscape evolution at the University of Johannesburg. Makhubela explains that geochronology is the science of determining the ages of rocks, minerals and fossils.

Makhubela, who became a member of Professor Lee Berger’s Rising Star team in 2014 when he was still doing his Master’s degree, says his interest in paleontology and geology was sparked in 2008 when Berger discovered Australopithecus sediba at the Malapa Caves.

So, how will he date these bones?

Makhubela explains that the process starts with looking at the material that is attached to the bones. Second, you look at the soil and rocks covering the fossils which can be dated using different techniques. “We are not dating the age of the fossils themselves but other events which took place in the area,” he explains.

Listen to the podcast for this fascinating conversation:


Earlier this year, Business Day conducted an in-depth interview with Berger on his life-long dedication to palaeontology, the incredible current period of exploration and the exhilarating feeling when his phone rings and the voice on the other side says, “we’ve found something”. He also speaks about the criticism that’s accompanied finding Homo naledi.

Read the article:

THE lens of the world’s palaeontological community is focused on the finds coming out of this corner of SA. Wits, the government and the tourism industry couldn’t be happier. Berger’s luck is now as fabled as Louis Leakey’s. But will his peers draw the line at tourism?

It seems Berger splits the world of palaeontology. Some find his methods, his media savvy and big claims sacrilegious. Others are swept along on the tide of his enthusiasm, buoyed by discoveries, passion and the generous sharing of his grant funding.

“‘Leakey’s luck’ is an insult,” Berger says.

“It denies the decades of hard graft that came before. Who doesn’t want to be lucky? We say, ‘gosh, I’m lucky’ all the time. As long as the people who are making the discoveries are swashbuckling adventurers, they don’t threaten the scientific establishment.”

It is the heartstopping moment, the lightning strikes, that get him out of bed in the morning.

In October this year, Berger took to Facebook to set the record straight on a number of statements in the media and on social media about the conditions around finding Homo naledi. Berger weighs in on issues such as not putting preservatives on the bones during the process of excavation and the accusation that the six excavators were chosen because they are women.

Read the post on Berger’s Facebook page:

Finally, the idea that the six primary excavators, who just happen to be women, were chosen for their sex as some sort of publicity stunt is insulting. It’s insulting to our large team of scientists, it’s insulting to these extraordinary scientists who literally risked their lives daily to recover these fossils, and it’s insulting to female scientists in general. I led the selection panel its true. There were approximately 60 qualified applicants that responded to the Ad I and others circulated on various social media platforms. A significant majority of these applicants were women and that may reflect nothing more than the changing demographics of who is choosing to do a degree in this field, I don’t know – they are who applied. We shortlisted that group to about ten candidates who we felt were the best qualified based on their skills and their skills alone, as long as they met the physical requirements the dangerous task demanded. We quite literally ranked them in order. It is a little known fact that from the shortlist, the first selection of six excavators included a male, but he, it turned out, did not actually meet the physical requirements to get into the chamber and so by that one chance the six scientists we chose were all women and all the best qualified to do the job meeting all the requirements we set out at the time. I hope that clears that issue up once and for all.

What does Homo naledi look like? Thomas Hartleb writes for News24 that Homo naledi is a mixture of ape and human and, according to Berger, “practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage”.

For a detailed description of Homo naledi’s physical attributes, read two journal articles on Nature Communications entitled: “The hand of Homo naledi” and “The foot of Homo naledi”.

Read the article:

Homo naledi’s hands and feet had features of both apes and modern humans, according to new research.

Its wrist, thumb, and palm were similar to Neanderthals and modern humans.

The fingers however were “long and remarkably curved” like those of existing apes, according to a paper titled The hand of Homo naledi, published in the journal Nature Communications on Monday.

Towards the end of September, Berger gave his first public lecture since the discovery of Homo naledi at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas in the United States.

Read the report on the lecture, written by Anna Kuchment, for The Dallas Morning News:

However old the fossils prove to be, the discovery will upend our understanding of how humans evolved, Berger said.

“When we look into this face, we’re seeing something truly startling and new that tells us we should be extremely cautious about proclaiming every fossil fragment we find the newest and best ancestor,” he said. “Homo naledi tells us there is more to be found.”

Traditionally, evolution has been seen as a linear progression from chimpish animals that walked upright, to animals with larger brains, to modern humans. But Berger thinks human history is messier.

“Homo naledi questions the uniqueness of our humanity,” he said.

Visitors of the Natural History Museum in London can also experience the wonders of Homo naledi. Three-dimensional prints of the fossils were unveiled in September and put on display in the Human Evolution gallery:

Casts of H. naledi skull, hand and jawbone fossils will be unveiled to the public at the Natural History Museum’s Science Uncovered night on Friday 25 September 2015, and will then go on display in our new Human Evolution gallery, opening later this year.

Adding to the mystery
One reason scientists are excited about H. naledi is that the fossils were found 80 metres deep within the cave system – an area that would have been in constant darkness.

Prof Stringer, who has written a comment piece in eLife accompanying the research, says ‘the deep cave location suggests that the bones may have been deposited there by other humans’.

Related links:


Book details

Image courtesy of the Sunday Times

» read article

The Discovery of Homo Naledi has Opened Up an Entirely New Field of Inquiry – Lee Berger

Field Guide to the Cradle of Human KindJ Brooks Spector recently sat down with paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, co-author of Field Guide to the Cradle of Human Kind, to discuss the discovery of a new species of human relative, named Homo naledi.

In September this year Berger and his extensive team of scientists announced the discovery of thousands of fossil bones in the Rising Star caves of the Cradle of Human Kind World Heritage Site. The manner in which the fossils were arranged is indicative of the possibility that this pre-Neanderthal species put thought into the process of disposing of their dead – a completely new idea.

“We’re going to have to open up an entirely new field of inquiry [about this]…. No matter what that level of consciousness is, until this moment, we have never had any level of strong evidence of a non-Homo Sapiens species in a ritualised way of dealing with death…. That is, doing the same thing in a repeated manner…. I do think we have the strongest evidence of this ever discovered,” Berger told Spector.

Read the article for more on this incredible subject:

The extraordinary public announcement, on Thursday, 10 September, of thousands of fossil bones from a new hominid species, Homo naledi, uncovered in one of the sites of the Cradle of Humankind has transfixed the world. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a first look at what it may mean for an understanding of human origins – and what it may mean to be human.

Nearly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin had written in his then-controversial volume The Descent of Man: “In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is, therefore, probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.”

Related links:


Book details

» read article

History from a Different Angle: Nechama Brodie Commandeers a Red Bus to Launch The Cape Town Book

Cape Town City Hall

Nechama BrodieThe Cape Town BookWith The Cape Town Book, Nechama Brodie has written a deserving biography of the Mother City – telling the often forgotten stories and revealing magical hidden gems about the place where so much of South Africa’s history has taken place.

This book is much more than just a tourist handbook, and anything but a history lesson. It builds a bridge between old and new, contrasting contemporary settings with their origin stories. Brodie highlights the people that played a role in creating Cape Town, from the slaves and slave owners to modern-day celebrities and political figureheads, and paints a fresh picture of the city everybody loves so much.

The Cape Town Book aims to be an inclusive and comprehensive document of history, focusing on the individual, unique spaces of the city. This includes the entire peninsula, from the Cape Flats and Northern Suburbs to Simon’s Town and Kommetjie. Brodie also covers topics such as “What Came Before?” and “Who Came Before?” – the first two chapters in the book – and consults experts and archival material to tell the full story.

To launch her new book, the sister publication of the bestselling The Joburg Book, Brodie took a small group of avid bookworms on a special sightseeing trip on board one of the famous Cape Town City Sightseeing double-decker red buses. As we jolted through the city she shared facts about the things that could be seen from the top, sowing a thread from street to street and leaving no stone unturned.

“Everywhere we go history stalks us,” Brodie said as the group gathered in the Company’s Garden to start the day’s adventure. “With The Cape Town Book I want to help you notice where and when it happens.” Armed with coffee and pastries, we learned more about the living museums and preserved relics that bear testament to the very beginning of the colonisation of the Cape.

From the Company’s Garden Brodie commandeered the red bus, sending us travelling past UCT Hiddingh Campus towards parliament – where history-in-action could be witnessed as students gathered for the historic #NationalShutdown as part of the #FeesMustFall campaign – with the author acting as a bespoke tour guide.

From parliament the bus drove down Spin Street, which Brodie revealed to have been the location of South Africa’s failed silk industry, towards the Castle of Good Hope and Grand Parade. After a brief pause to take in the surroundings and all that it represents, we travelled up Buitenkant Street and onto De Waal Drive where strong winds, which have shaped Cape Town in their own remarkable way, could not deter Brodie’s captivating voice-over.

It’s fascinating to take into account that Table Mountain was at some point the bottom of what was once a much larger mountain, and that Robben Island used to be a hill on a coastal plain, the author mused as we looked towards the famous landmarks in the distance. People would have been able to walk across.

The next stop was Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, albeit briefly, before the bus hit the road again, following it to Hout Bay via Rhodes Drive and past Constantia. Travelling on Victoria Road back to the city a group of whales could be seen playing in the distance, emphasising the diversity of life in the Mother City.

All along the way Brodie shared a wealth of information on the city, from the story behind the bitter almond trees planted by Van Riebeeck to logic behind the well-known Cape Dutch architecture. If the tour and is anything to go by, The Cape Town Book is sure to be an indispensable read for anyone interested in the true story of the Mother City.

Cape Town


Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp) tweeted live from the launch, using the hashtag #TheCTBook:



* * * * *

Scroll through the Facebook album for photos taken during The Cape Town Book red bus tour:



Book details

» read article