Meet The Woman Who Helped Discover A New Species Of Human

Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Morris.
Hannah Morris in South Africa's Rising Star Cave, where the bones and fossils of Homo naledi were discovered.
Imagine descending more than 39 feet down into a pitch-black cave through a chute a little more than seven inches wide. Imagine carefully positioning your chest between the walls, exhaling, and then moving down slowly, breath by breath. Now, imagine that at the end of that chute are the bones of a previously undiscovered, distant relative of humans that could change the way we view our own evolution.

Hannah Morris, an archaeologist and PhD student at the University of Georgia, made that journey along with five other daring, highly skilled women scientists. Together with paleoanthropologist Dr. Lee R. Berger, the team retrieved and studied fossils from South Africa's Rising Star Cave that helped them to identify Homo naledi, the world's newest species of early human.

On September 10, the team shared their discovery with the world. As news of the cave's tricky dimensions spread, so too did the dimensions of its navigators. Berger's original Facebook ad to recruit the exploration team asked for "tiny and small specialized cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, paleontological and excavation skills" who were "willing to work in cramped quarters," National Geographic reported.

The team ended up being six women who possessed both the scientific background and physical strength to work in Rising Star Cave.

Now that the world has met Homo naledi, Refinery29 sat down with Morris to meet one of the women behind the discovery. Morris spoke to Refinery29 about landing the job of a lifetime and why the headlines might be taking away from women's groundbreaking contributions to science.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of K. Lindsay Hunter.
The six women scientists — Becca Peixotto, K. Lindsay Hunter, Hannah Morris, Alia Gurtov, Marina Elliot, and Elen Feuerriegel (left to right) — who descended into Rising Star Cave to retrieve fossils from Homo naledi.

Did you have to keep the discovery of Homo naledi a secret before last week's announcement?
"Yes. A lot of people have been analyzing the fossils since they came out [in 2013]. So the list of people who have known has slowly expanded. We really were keeping it a secret in order to be able to do the science in the best way possible — and to present our findings after we had looked at all the evidence and gathered everything together to be able to state our case confidently."

Was it hard to keep this a secret?

"Yes, in one sense. I felt a strong professional obligation to keep this under wraps until we really understood what species we were dealing with. I think it was harder for the people around me, for my family, who really wanted to know these details. But it's part of being a professional — sometimes you can't tell everyone that you want to everything that you want to."

What did you tell them you were doing?
"They knew that I was going to South Africa to excavate hominin remains and honestly, that's all I kind of knew when I left, which might sound a little crazy. But when Lee Berger calls and asks you if you want to come to South Africa, you just say yes [laughing].

"So when I left, all I knew was that we were going after what might, might be the most complete hominin skeleton that had ever been found. And of course, it ends up being so, so much more than that."

How did you find out about the project?
"I was working on an archaeological dig with the American Museum of Natural History. I was out in the field and I came in one day and I did what you do when you come in from the field, which is crack open a beer and your computer. I logged onto Facebook and I saw this job posting. It was asking for scientists who had caving and climbing experience and who were also very experienced in terms of archaeological excavation skills.

"I just happened to have all of those skills. I grew up caving in North Georgia with my dad and my family. I've excavated in some pretty unique and challenging circumstances in different places in the world."

...there’s a very small opening...as I exhaled, I could lower myself inch by inch to the floor of the fossil chamber.

Hannah Morris, Archeologist
How did your family react to the news of your getting the job?
"They were super excited. They've always been so incredibly supportive of everything that I've done. I would not have even applied for so many of the wonderful jobs that I've gotten if my parents had not really encouraged me from an early age to just go for it. And that's what I tell students all the time, 'If you don't try, then you'll never know what would have happened. The worst someone can do is tell you no.'"

We’ve read that the Facebook ad asked for very skinny women. Is that true? Are you very small?

"The Facebook ad actually might have used the word skinny. I had a conversation about that with Lee when I went through the interview process. I’m not a small person — I’m quite tall. So we discussed that for a little while and determined that I would probably fit.

"There are physical constraints that have to do with the cave; that’s a fact of reality. Not everyone can actually get down in there, but you don’t have to be a supermodel by any means. I think there are a lot of other factors that led to the six of us being chosen, besides just the size and shape of our bodies."
Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Morris .
The team's campground near Rising Star Cave, in South Africa.
Advertisement
Does it bother you that people are talking about body types a lot?
"It hasn’t been that much of an issue in the past couple of days. I think that has to do with how the scientists are presenting this — they’re talking about the cave, which is great. Again, it’s a fact of reality that the cave is a certain size.

"It was more of an issue I felt like, personally, when we were down in South Africa and it was just getting started. That makes a really splashy headline. There were articles that said ‘slinky scientists’ and ‘slender scientists slither through the cave’ — and that’s a little frustrating to deal with.

"As a woman scientist, you want people to be talking about your research and the science and your cognitive capabilities as opposed to the size and shape of your body. That’s a huge issue in American society, I feel.

"I don’t feel like we’ve really touched on this very much in the overall discussion. I think it’s just a slippery slope to the objectification of women. Again, I would rather be known as a good researcher than a hot researcher...All of the scientists — and the women scientists — who were involved in this project are wonderful researchers. That’s what we should be talking about, instead of the size and shape of our bodies."

As a woman scientist, you want people to be talking about...your cognitive capabilities as opposed to the size and shape of your body.

Hannah Morris, Archeologist
What was it like actually going down there and seeing the cave for the first time?
"Oh wow, it was incredible. The first time we actually went into the cave, we went on a fun expedition led by some of the cavers. We didn’t actually go into the fossil chamber, we just explored some other areas of the cave.

"There’s this one particular cavern that’s covered with crystals on the ceiling...We were coming in from a long tunnel. The person in front of you would enter this chamber and you could see their light head upwards and then you would hear a gasp. It was just incredibly, incredibly beautiful. That’s another reason why Lee went out and found people who could fit into this cave, is to preserve the ecological integrity instead of just blasting his way in there.

"Marina [Elliot] and Becca [Peixotto] and I were the first excavator team to enter the chamber. I was a little nervous, I’m not going to lie. But it got much easier after that first time. Once you do it, you know that you can do it. From then on out, it’s just doing your job."

What kinds of physical skills does it take to climb into a cave like this?

"When you enter the cave, you go down a series of narrow hallways. Those are easier steps that you can step down and then you have to climb down this really tall ladder, so you’re going deeper and deeper into the cave. You go through another small hallway and then you’re at the first constriction. That’s called ‘Superman’s Crawl,' so you have to get down on the ground and crawl through this little tunnel that’s maybe five meters long. Then it opens up into a larger chamber. That’s where you actually have to put on a climbing harness, so that’s where things get a little trickier.

"You clip into a safety rope that the volunteer cavers had rigged along the route for us. That’s anchored into the wall so that if you do fall, it’s going to catch you, theoretically. You actually climb about 20 meters up the spine of this very narrow underground ridge. That’s ‘Dragon’s Back,’ that ridge, because it has that appearance of the spine on a dragon’s back. Once you get to the top you’re at the entrance to the chute. That’s a 12-meter vertical drop."
Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Morris.
Bones from the Homo naledi discovered in the Rising Star cave in South Africa.
"At one point, we put on harnesses for that, but we found is that it actually made things more difficult, because the harnesses would get caught on the walls in front of and behind us — that’s where the 18-centimeter squeeze is. You have to make your way down this 12-meter vertical drop. I’m fairly tall and I’m one of the larger members of the crew, so I really only fit down there one way. I had to pretzel my body. You get pretty beat up — lots of bruises and scrapes, especially the first week or so while I was still trying to find the particular handholds and footholds that I would need to use.

"Once you get to the very bottom of the shoot, there’s a very small opening. I actually fit my chest in that opening and inflated my lungs; as I exhaled, I could lower myself inch by inch to the floor of the fossil chamber, which is about a four meter drop. So my legs are dangling in the air, and I’m sliding down inch by inch, trying to find a foothold on the cave wall or on the ladder that’s below me.

"It’s very physical. It’s very intense, both physically and mentally. You need a lot of physical strength and mental endurance to go all of that way and then spend six hours in an underground chamber."

What was the biggest challenge about this for you, personally?
"At the end of the project I felt exhausted — mentally, emotionally, spiritually. It was so exciting while it was going on, but at the end of every day, you were just really exhausted. Going in and out of the cave, sometimes more than once a day, was incredibly hard on your body, but at the same time it was so much fun and it was so exciting to be down there. You could run yourself into the ground if you weren’t careful.

"One of the things we found was that nobody wanted to leave the chamber. We all wanted to stay down there for as long as we could. Lee would come on the phone and be threatening us, telling us that we had to come out."

If you don't try, then you'll never know what would have happened. The worst someone can do is tell you 'no.'

Hannah Morris, Archaeologist
Advertisement
Was that because of the physical beauty, the scientific intrigue, or something else?
"Definitely the science. We all loved the cave. I could talk a lot about what being in the cave meant to us. That was really special. But we were there for a particular reason. We were in that particular spot for a reason.

"It’s hard to describe sometimes to folks who don’t necessarily do things that require this type of concentration in their work. You would get focused on excavating a bone and hours would just fly by. I have memories of excavating an element like this one mandible that I spent all morning excavating. You’re just picking away and picking away and trying to expose this and to safely remove it and you blink and it’s been two hours and somebody’s telling you 'You need to eat. You need to drink water.' But it’s just so easy to get lost in what you’re doing.

"When we first started, we didn’t know how safe this environment was in terms of the fossils. It was the start of the rainy season in South Africa and we didn’t know if we might have water that started moving into the cave, so we were really focused on just working as hard as we could and trying to remove some of the most important elements as quickly as we could to protect them.”

What did the cave mean to you?
"We all developed our own special relationship with the cave. For a lot of people, I think it could be a foreboding environment and something they felt nervous about going into, being in such a confined space. This is partly due to my background and growing up caving, but also I think it definitely has to do with the work that we were doing down in there and just developing a special relationship with the cave — you almost feel like you're going into the Earth.

"Some people have described it as entering the womb of the Earth and trying to retrieve this part of the Earth’s history. At times, it felt very comforting to just be inside the cave and to feel the walls around you. It was a really special experience."

What is something that you want the world to know about Homo naledi?
"It’s really an example of a new species in our genus, in our lineage, and it’s really going to tell us a lot about our origins, potentially, and what other hominins evolved within our own genus. It’s this really unique combination of traits that we’ve never really seen before all in one specimen.

"The really amazing thing about Homo naledi is that we have so many individuals. We have this large span of ages of individuals from quite young — infants — to older individuals who were close to the end of their lives. That’s just so unique in anthropology. As a whole, this assemblage is a really incredible opportunity for paleoanthropology to learn so much more about where we came from. It's an incredible opportunity to just sort of fill in some of these questions about who we are and how we came to be the way that we are."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Advertisement

More from Global News