Wanna be an ‘astronaut’? Here's your chance to join the Homo ...

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Wanna be an ‘astronaut’? Here's your chance to join the Homo naledi hunt

Only a small pool of people worldwide are qualified for this mission

Journalist


Do you deal well with stress, cope well with humidity and can you slide down a 18cm chute? Palaeoanthropologist and explorer Professor Lee Berger wants you.
Berger, of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits, led the team of scientists in 2015 who discovered the single largest fossil hominin (forerunner to humans) in Africa, Homo naledi.
The discovery of Homo naledi at the Rising Star Cave at the Cradle of Humankind, outside Krugersdorp, was the latest addition to man’s evolutionary lineage.
It’s been exactly three years since it was first announced that Berger and the Rising Star expedition had discovered more than 1,550 numbered fossil elements.
This year, Berger wants to head back down the cave to learn more about the species. Similar to the previous expedition, a call has been made on social media for volunteers to participate and train as “underground astronauts” – a term Berger coined during a television interview.
“It’s a small worldwide pool of people who are qualified for this. In 2013 I got 60 applications in two weeks, but this year I’m raising the criteria because we have more experience now. When we did this in 2013, we didn’t know what we were getting into. Now we know,” Berger said.
The Facebook post Berger put out last week states that successful applicants must be fit, capable, ideally have some experience in caving, possess strong demonstrable excavation and climbing skills, not be claustrophobic and work well in teams under very stressful, often dangerous conditions.
Prospective “astronauts” must also be able to fit through and climb up and down chutes about 18cm wide. They must have at least a master’s degree in a suitable field of study such as archaeology, geology or palaeoanthropology.
Berger said he preferred candidates either pursuing a PhD programme or those who already had a doctoral degree. Candidates must be available from mid-October 2018 through the first week of December and have passports valid for travel to SA.
The expedition team will most likely comprise 12 to 15 explorers, three to six scientists and a few student volunteers to sort and move material they discover.
“We’re hoping to get more specimens. This is a remarkable species that we’re still learning about. We’re hoping to find more structural bones. We’re opening up more areas to see how this species moved and lived. We will certainly find more bones,” Berger said.
Describing the discovery as the “most precious”, he said those who made the cut would have to be individuals who understood the risks involved, could handle humid conditions and worked well in a team.
“There’s not one explorer who went on the Homo naledi expedition that didn’t have scratches and bruises. We’ll be working in close spaces with a team for six to eight hours. Getting to and from different chambers can be extremely dangerous. Then there’s sliding down a chute that’s about 17.5cm wide, the humidity, potential rock collapses and exhaustion,” Berger said. 
Berger said candidates should watch the 2015 American documentary Dawn of Humanity to get a sense of what the 2018 expedition would entail.
It documents the 2013 discovery and excavation of the fossils found in the Dinaledi Chambers, covering different phases of the discovery of the fossil remains of Homo naledi. 
“The people who actually do this have a certain mentality to cope with these conditions. There’s a great deal of stress in keeping people safe, but as explorers, we are calculated risk takers, and we all prepare in different ways. I plan everything meticulously,” Berger said.
Since he put out the call a week ago, Berger has received 25 applications from as far afield as Australia and India. Applications will close at the end of September, and will be followed by interviews with shortlisted candidates.
Last year it was discovered that the age of the original Homo naledi remains from the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star Cave was “startlingly young”. Homo naledi, which was first announced in September 2015, was alive sometime between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago.
This is the first time it has been demonstrated that another species of hominin survived alongside the first humans in Africa.

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