The Malapa Fossils

Photographs and Text by Brent Stirton

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Professor Lee Berger, the man behind the discovery, believes Malapa may hold the key to one of the most significant and least understood chapters in human evolution: the origin of the first species enough like us to be called the first human – the first member of the genus called Homo.
The Malapa site lies outside of Johannesburg, South Africa in the famous “Cradle of Humankind.” Over the last 3 years it has offered up more unique fossil finds than any other site in the world. Careful excavation by Professor Lee Berger’s Wits University team is leading to ongoing discoveries more regularly than any site in history. Many of these finds are more significant and complete than any other thus far in this field.
There is now scientifically verifiable evidence of six individual skeletons on this site alone, unprecedented in the field of Paleo-Anthropology.
The use of technology has also proven revolutionary, with incredibly detailed micro scans from French Syncotron machines, CT scans and 3D imaging producing images that were never possible before. There is even a possibility of seeing skin and hair on the skull of Sediba, a 1.95 million year old youth with the most intact skull ever found.
This discovery opens up fundamental questions about human origin. It takes what has come before and throws into dispute many theories on evolution. There are currently more than 80 scientists working in harmony on this project, something rarely seen in such a competitive field. Wits University Paleo Sciences department has a large team of excavators and artists, delicately carving out fossil pieces from Malapa’s ancient rock, duplicating them in resin and sending these discoveries out to the worldwide team to reinforce their research.
One of the chief questions remains: what exactly has been discovered? Are these fossils late Australopithecus Africana or an early Homo Erectus? If so, where does this link fit in our chain of evolution? Whatever it turns out to be, these fossils offer more evidence about early hominids than any other single discovery in the world. There seems to be no end to the fossils coming out the ground at Malapa and no limit to what they may tell us about the true origins of humanity.

This story was originally published in the August 2011 issue of National Geographic and can be seen here.