Biggest-ever display of fossil hominins opens

Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site hosts new exhibition of Homo naledi

One of the panels in the “Almost Human” exhibition. Photo: John Hawks CC-BY

It was an exciting morning for me in the Cradle of Humankind, as the visitor centre at Maropeng opened the new exhibit, “Almost Human.” The exhibit showcases the science behind the Homo naledi discoveries in the Rising Star cave system.

Some of the more than 700 remains from the Dinaledi Chamber in the exhibit. Photo: John Hawks CC-BY

The stars of the show are the original fossils of H. naledi. More than 700 of the fossil specimens from the Dinaledi Chamber have returned to Maropeng for this exhibition. They are joined by more than a hundred of the Lesedi Chamber fossils, including the outstanding “Neo” skeleton. In terms of sheer numbers, these two extraordinary collections together make up the largest display of fossil hominins ever staged for the public.

This exhibit is different from any human origins museum exhibition that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them. Rising Star has been a human story, and the people are here front and center from the very discovery of the fossils. The whole team, from cavers and volunteers, to the six “underground astronauts”, to the laboratory scientists, have a place here.

It has been a privilege to see this exhibit come together. The planning has taken many months, with designers using many of the photos and videos that our team gathered during the field expeditions and later scientific work. It has been so much fun to see so many friends with their own place in the story. Probably my favorite bit is the case that shows the fossil vault with the team of scientists working inside. The illusion is really effective, it seems like you are really there watching the team work.

But everybody who visits the exhibit has a different favorite. I’ve seen today kids taking “selfies” with the underground astronauts, grownups seeing if they can shimmy their way through the 18-centimeter “squeeze”, and people surprised to notice a caver’s legs about to drop down out of a hole in the ceiling.

Marina Elliott (front) with Bonita de Klerk and Debi Bolter working to lay out the Dinaledi hominin fossils at Maropeng. Photo: John Hawks CC-BY

From the beginning of the field expedition, our scientific team has worked to innovate in sharing the discoveries and the scientific results with the public, both here in South Africa and worldwide. We have been so fortunate to have partners here at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, in Gauteng provincial government, and in the South African national government who see the value of the research and who help us find ways to bring the public into the discoveries. It is a lot of work to support this kind of exhibition, and so much credit goes to Bonita de Klerk and Marina Elliott who have been essential in bringing the scientific story and fossils to Maropeng.

“Neo” skull of Homo naledi on exhibit at Maropeng. Photo: John Hawks CC-BY

Meanwhile, that scientific story continues as we carry on with more work on the fossils, pursue more clues to the behavior of H. naledi, and try to unravel their place in our evolutionary story.

For people who want more details on the science and where we have come so far, I can recommend the book that Lee Berger and I have just written, Almost Human. People today at the exhibition launch have had such great reactions to the book! It tells the story of the discovery from the very first moments up to the latest science, including the shocking finding that Homo naledi was here in the Cradle area within the last 300,000 years. I can’t predict where this incredible story will go next, but as Lee often says, “Watch this space!”