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  • September 10, 2015

One Videographer’s Journey to Find a Lost Human Ancestor

On an unremarkable day in 2013, two professional cavers decided to squeeze through a passageway in South Africa that they had never gone through before. They contorted themselves through more than 650 feet of rocky and dangerous passageways, as narrow as seven inches wide in some parts, before dropping down into a cave quite literally covered in hominin fossils. These fossils would later reveal the existence of Homo naledi, a new species of human ancestor that has a similar hand, foot, and skull shape to humans but with apelike shoulders and a tiny brain.

Paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger put together a team of six anthropologists, archaeologists, and paleontologists to retrieve these bones. Because of the seven-inch gap, it turned out that a majority of the applicants—and all of the final scientists—were women.

Garrreth Bird is a five-foot-nine adventure videographer who just so happens to be able to squeeze through that small space. His size and skill in caving allowed him to film the recovery of more than 1,550 H. naledi fossils for the NOVA/National Geographic TV special Dawn of Humanity.

Bird was there to witness every discovery and capture it on film, which you can view in the video above. I spoke with Bird over the phone and asked him about his experiences filming this historic dig.

Read more about the discovery of H. naledi in the October issue of National Geographic.

man looking through crevasse headlamp
Bird says that he made this selfie “about halfway down the 12-meter vertical chute leading to the final chamber. This is the most testy section of the journey in [that] it is steep, slippery, and extremely constricted.”
KATHRYN CARLSON: How did you get involved in this project? I know that the six female scientists had to submit their measurements because they were required to fit a certain physical description—was that also your experience?

GARRRETH BIRD: I was lucky enough to be a perfect “fit” for this shoot, if you’ll excuse the pun. As a fairly compact and nimble adventure videographer and photographer I have done a lot of work shooting quite wild stuff—including a lot of rock climbing. The National Geographic team had to find someone who was professionally capable of the task but also someone who was comfortable working in difficult and rather extreme circumstances and who could also fit through a gap of 18 centimeters [seven inches]. They were satisfied that I was the right person. Not long after that, I was en route to the Cradle of Humankind.

KATHRYN: What was it like entering the cave?

GARRRETH: My being there was entirely premised upon the fact that I could make it through the 18-centimeter squeeze into the final chamber, so there was an element of uncertainty and slight nervousness as to whether I would actually be able to do it.

cave stalactites
The headlamp of a caver illuminates the stalactites of a large cavern in a slightly more accessible section of the Rising Star cave system.

KATHRYN: What was the final chamber like? Describe it for me.

GARRRETH: Caves are quite magical to me. They’re like little secretive passages that only a few adventurous people get to go down. Every time your headlight pans around it picks up these little sparks, grooves of crystals, weird stripes—it’s really quite a feast for your eyes.

You’re in a place where the ambient light feels like it’s negative, it’s completely dark. You breathe in this musty, dank smell all day, and it becomes slightly oppressive. There’s so much dust, and you’re constantly crawling around the ground, so you feel quite literally covered in cave.

After a while you develop this love-hate relationship with the cave. You feel like you’ve unlocked this funky little key, getting through this one passageway. But, then again, you hate it because you bash your knee or eat a mouthful of dust. You start to view this cave as a friend whose behavior you’re not so fond of.

KATHRYN: Was it difficult to film in the cave? What are some of the challenges you faced?

GARRRETH: I don’t think I’ve ever shot in a more difficult environment. The cave itself is 30 meters [98 feet] underground vertically, but it’s about 200 meters [656 feet] distance to get from the entrance to the actual final chamber. Two hundred meters sounds like a short distance, but it’s not a normal 200 meters. Every part of the descent is hugely complicated and very narrow. I had to make sure my (camera) kit and I could fit through there. I went with a Canon 5D Mk III [digital SLR] because you can take everything apart and put it back together again.

You have to be constantly aware of your environment, because these fossils are priceless. There were only certain places I was allowed to walk because it was a fossil-rich ground. So to get a different angle I had to shimmy up stalactites. I had to be exceedingly careful not to drop any of my equipment onto the scientists or fossils below. God forbid—it wasn’t even an option.  

women with helmets in cave
Two members of the team work on the most dense collection of bones in the find, nicknamed “the puzzlebox” because of the complicated jumble of their arrangement.

KATHRYN: Did anything surprising happen when you were down there?

GARRRETH: I actually did find a fossil. I spent quite a lot of my time clambering up the walls of the chamber in order to get different shots. In one of these cases I scraped away some sand and there was a little fossil. It was quite cool to discover, because it wouldn’t have easily been found if I wasn’t trying to keep out of the way of the scientists.

KATHRYN: What was it like working so closely with the [scientists] in the cave?

GARRRETH: It was like being an apprentice detective, with these ladies telling me what each little element might indicate in terms of the part of the body or the age of the creature or extra bits of evidence like food in the teeth. They were able to tell from basic fragments whether there might be more than one [hominin] or not. They take their work very seriously—as do I—but we were actually having a lot more fun than we should’ve, considering the gravity of what we were doing.

There were so many fossils around that a few times I managed to catch the actual moment of discovery. I did have to ask the ladies to perhaps tone down the language that they were using to express exactly how happy they were. There’s sentences where the F-word happens like ten times.

I finally had to say to them, “Look, I think this is hilarious, but I have a feeling that it is going to make this thing rather difficult to edit. And if any of these shots don’t get into (the TV show) because of all the bleeping that has to be put overtop, you’re going to make me grumpy.”

KATHRYN: How did it feel to be one of the first people to see these bones in millennia?

GARRRETH: I was fully aware of the implications of the find, should it turn out to be what everybody hoped it would be. But what was incredible for me was being so close and getting to spend so much time with something that was potentially so special. And the cherry on the top was being present when they were stumbling upon these fossils, live, in the flesh, right before my eyes. It wasn’t some re-creation, and that was a really special experience to have.


View more of Garrreth Bird’s work on his website.

Learn more about this incredible discovery in the October issue of National Geographic.

There are 30 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Claudia
    November 15, 2015

    The find – phenomenal! And why not trust this is truly as remarkable as it seems?

    More significant – Hats off to Berger for an amazing ability to be transparent and open.

    NO ONE SEEMS TO APPRECIATE the absolutely incredible, remarkable scenario that has taken place here. SIX WOMEN were chosen for this work. Yes – it is because of physical size limitations – but Thank God for that. It’s been 50+ years since we began considering that women and men could be equal but different – embracing a biblical concept that we all have unique gifts. But until this expedition . . . are there any examples where a scientific discovery as significant as Rising Star was entrusted to a team that was exclusively of one gender – the female gender?

  2. Pedro Adolpho Grossi
    October 13, 2015

    Fantastic! Amazing! As a father of two daughters I’m very proud to see women playing such an important role! Congratulations to all NG team members!

  3. Robbin Hudson
    October 10, 2015

    After the time required to complete a full analysis has passed, and conclusive evidence supports the findings. We then will asses your specutilive comments.

  4. Sumner Berg
    October 3, 2015

    It is wonderful to discover what may have given rise to one useless species as ourselves!

  5. Ritchie Froehlich
    October 2, 2015

    Thank you for posting on this wonderful find & the inspiring story of the women scientists who made the find recoverable. It is disappointing that some people, in the name of “science” feel compelled to rain on the parade. Science is a process, and celebrating a unique and unprecedented achievement does NOT preclude critical analysis, which will be ongoing for quite some time.

  6. Azria Barrett
    September 22, 2015

    Wow!

  7. Peter Ooijen
    September 15, 2015

    I’m flabbergasted!

  8. Joe Stevens
    September 14, 2015

    This is quite a wonderful find, but the television program is very one-sided. There is nary an untoward word about the find and the conclusions made. There was not one scientist interviewed with a dissenting view. This is rah-rah science and I’m disappointed that both NOVA and NatGeo foisted this on us instead of a serious science program about the subject. Science without dissent is not science at all.

  9. Johan van der Waals
    September 14, 2015

    Incredible find! Weird to think that it is in my ‘backyard’ with many soil surveys conducted in the area. Whatever the discussions (science, religion – and even politics in SA) I am looking forward to seeing more over the next few years.

  10. Rick
    September 13, 2015

    This has been big news in the UK over the last few days. I remain unconvinced as to the hominid nature of these bones. The brains are much too small, the mouth shapes are those of non-hominid, the hands are non-hominid and the feet are unconvincing. I think the most likely scenario is a family of these animals went into the caves and got trapped after a disastrous event such rockfall or mud slide and died there. There is no sign of burial ritual. The bones are all muddled up as would have happened in such an event. They are just not hominids or anywhere near being so. The newspapers used pictures of a model done about 8-9 years ago to illustrate their case. I have lost the reference, but have a photocopy slide from N.G. and then Repeated in N.G. in 2011) They were from the work the artist/sculptor, John Gurche, had done. He made the statement that was on a skull-find in Zurich. The commentary says said about the drawing. “It is a gizzilion stage process. … Comparing to Lucy’s counterpart. “I wanted to get a human soul into this ape like face, to indicate something about where he was heading.” So in fact it was guess work and a great idea based on his presuppositions. We have been conned yet again by bias trying to fit facts to a theory.

  11. Ivor Cogdell
    September 12, 2015

    Since at least 15 individuals have been found, why are the bodies so fragmentary in nature. Was the deposition of the bodies when they were whole or at least partially so, since you are finding tiny bones, possibly scavenging by animals ? Well done to all on team.

  12. Johan
    September 12, 2015

    Presumably the scientists have tried to do some DNA analysis on some specimens, but I have not seen it mentioned.

  13. Robert de Vos
    September 12, 2015

    From my caving experience in my early teens going through cave systems like this I have to say that these women have to be the bravest scientists I have had the privilege to know of.

  14. Deborah Stephenson
    September 11, 2015

    In light of recent research suggesting that human hands may actually be more primitive than those of apes — whose hands evolved to aid them in climbing and swinging through trees (see http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150714/ncomms8717/full/ncomms8717.html for one description of this research)– I have to wonder at this statement by Berger…

    “The message we’re getting is of an animal right on the cusp of the transition from Australopithecus to Homo,” Berger said as the workshop began to wind down in early June. “Everything that is touching the world in a critical way is like us. The other parts retain bits of their primitive past.”

    Maybe it’s the other way round and we’re looking at an early, more human-like ancestor of modern apes. Who knows? 😉

  15. Gilson Santos
    September 11, 2015

    He could not have died in the cave?

  16. Fred Bichl
    September 11, 2015

    I think the bleeping of certain words detracts from the scientific value of the stream of expression. Let ‘em rip.

  17. Steven McMacken
    September 10, 2015

    John, perhaps you should read a little more about the find before you jump in with both feet and make an a** of yourself with your wildly speculative and unscientific opinion.

  18. Alvaro Ramos
    September 10, 2015

    Thank you

  19. cynthia
    September 10, 2015

    uhm,most minds will not or refuse to understand this.

  20. Shani Eisenmann
    September 10, 2015

    One idea as to how they got there, was it a group of H. naledi hiding from something? Say an ice-age or something and dying from starvation or cold? Would possibly explain the different ages of fossils.
    Just a theory! High school student who doesn’t know much talking here 🙂

  21. Gina Emett
    September 10, 2015

    Absolutely incredible find! Congratulations.

  22. Marc
    September 10, 2015

    John, are you sure you have read the whole thing ?

  23. David Webb
    September 10, 2015

    Dr. Berger’s reconstruction of “H. naledi” body proportions should not be accepted without caution. The article points out that “[t]here were some 1,550 specimens in all, representing at least 15 individuals.” It also says that in some areas the bones were all jumbled together. One area in particular was a “dense collection of bones in the find, nicknamed “the puzzlebox” because of the complicated jumble of their arrangement.” These conditions prevent scientists from knowing which bones came from the same individual and that makes it impossible to reconstruct the body proportions of any particular individual.

  24. mauren guadalupe
    September 10, 2015

    thank you… !!

  25. Mark
    September 10, 2015

    “superficial conclusion.” Now that makes me laugh, especially when followed by superficial nonsense flavored with sour hyperbole.

  26. John Westfield
    September 10, 2015

    What a superficial conclusion. I have to admit the artists work does reveal some talent. But to introduce these bones as a missing species in the evolution of humankind seems a bit fast.
    There is no evidence of a burial site in this cave.
    The entrance, a small hole, isnt very likely to have not changed in the past hundreds of thousands of years. Gravity and shifting landscape change such small details over such a long time.
    These bones could be part of a larger burial of food. Perhaps these creatures have been hunted and eaten by a more intelligent species, trying to hide the cadaver. The stench of death might have lured more dangerous creatures of that time to the site.
    Times this long ago, must have been dangerous for our early anchestors. It is the main fact of their lives.

  27. Gonzalo Guevara
    September 10, 2015

    Great finding for humanity, congratulations

  28. Bo James
    September 10, 2015

    Yes Charles, there is a huge discussion about that, mostly due to the fact that it appears the only way they would’ve gotten there is if they were placed there by other members of their species. Which would be pretty advanced behavior previously only seen in humans and Neanderthals.

  29. Charles O. Slavens
    September 10, 2015

    Has anyone questioned why or how this group of bi-pedal
    pre-humans ended up in this spot?

  30. pallavkar
    September 10, 2015

    one of the greatest findings to trace evolution of present human race. congrats

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