Want to hold a fossil? All you need is a phone
Homo naledi discoverers launch world-first app that puts people anywhere in the world into the famous cave
Navigating the tricky twists and turns of the Dinaledi Chamber at the Cradle of Humankind outside Krugersdorp is no longer a scary affair. In fact, if you have a smartphone, you can take a virtual tour from just about anywhere.
It has been three years since internationally renowned palaeoanthropologist and explorer Professor Lee Berger, from Johannesburg’s Wits University, and his team discovered the single largest fossil hominin (forerunner to humans) in Africa, Homo naledi, at the Rising Star Cave.
Now, Berger, with the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas, have launched a world-first virtual reality (VR) experience which will allow people from anywhere in the world to tour the cave.
The Dinaledi VR App takes users down the 18cm chute, through the dark Dinaledi Chamber, showing the bats, dolomite walls and fossils the team discovered in 2015. Narration on the App is available in English, Setswana, Sesotho, isiZulu and Spanish.
The app is designed so viewers can explore and “virtually” hold fossils from the cave.
Expedition leader Marina Elliott said the aim was to give everyone an opportunity to experience the wonders of the Dinaledi Chamber.
“People think that science is boring. This app shows people that it’s exciting. What we do is dangerous, dirty and bloody. Being able to experience something yourself gives people a better impression of what we do,” Elliott said.
On Saturday, Elliott and the team will trade their virtual reality headsets for headlamps and ropes as they begin their next expedition.
In September, Berger put out a call on social media for volunteers to participate and train as “underground astronauts”, a term he coined to describe the cave explorers.
Speaking to Times Select at the time, Berger said the team would consist of 12 to 15 explorers, three to six scientists and a few volunteers.
Elliott said it was very difficult to prepare anyone for the tough conditions experienced in the cave. She said getting through small, dark spaces, long hours underground, and cuts and bruises were tough, but that the real challenge was in the mind.
“The physical aspect is tough, but for most people the real challenge is in their mind. We’ll just have to see how it works out when we begin ... what I can say is that there’s no pride underground, if something is wrong you have to communicate. There’s no point in being brave, brave gets you killed underground,” Elliott said.
The discovery of Homo naledi was the latest addition to man’s evolutionary lineage. Homo naledi lived between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, and is proof that another species of hominin survived alongside the first humans in Africa.
The Perot Museum Virtual Reality Dinaledi Experience App is available on Google Playstore and the Apple App Store.
The app is free, but to make the most of it users will need a Google cardboard or a VR headset. The cardboard, with 3D lenses, transforms any smartphone into a VR headset. It’s affordable and can be built in less than three minutes.
Speaking from Dallas on Tuesday, Berger said it was exciting to share this experience with people all over the world.
“As I would never be able to actually get into the Dinaledi Chamber, one of the most exciting things for me, personally, is that through the Dinaledi app I can see and experience what it is like to be in the chamber where these wonderful discoveries were made,” Berger said.
The new team consists of 15 to 20 people, including six excavators, five cavers and support volunteers. The criteria was that they needed to fit through and climb up and down chutes about 18cm wide, and have at least a master’s degree in either archaeology, geology or palaeoanthropology. Four new recruits are joining the team, three of them South African and one from the UK.
One of the long-term goals of the VR project is to bring the information to school children. Elliott said that for South African youngsters this was basically in their “backyards” and was a good opportunity for them to learn why South Africa is so important and “why we’re all African in the end”.
She said that in the next month, while the teams are working underground, they will also be doing National Geographic explorer classroom sessions. These 30-minute sessions will be hosted online via Google Hangout or Skype, providing schoolchildren and teachers from around the world the opportunity to have a live question-and-answer session with the team.
They will be able to interact with the team, see what’s happening underground and ask the explorers and excavators questions. Teachers will be able to interact with other schools around the world in real time.