Bethany Ehlmann, Alia Gurtov, Elen Feuerriegel, Marina Elliott, Lindsay Hunter and Hannah Morris at the Rising Star cave system at the Cradle of the Humankind, Gauteng. They were the first group of 'underground astronauts' (Lee R. Berger, Facebook)
  • Aspiring fossil excavators can now apply to become an 'underground astronaut' at the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng.
  • But the 'astronauts' need to be able to fit through 18cm holes, work in dark cramped conditions 30 metres underground, and be professional scientists. 
  • Palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger is hoping to find body structure bones of Homo Naledi in the caves. 

Palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger is calling on South Africans to join his team of "underground astronauts" excavating the Rising Star cave system at the Cradle of the Humankind in Gauteng, near Johannesburg.

The "astronauts" will need to fit through 18cm big holes, and work in dark cramped conditions 30 metres underground, where the team is looking for early human skeletons. 

“I coined the term ['underground astronauts’] during an interview back in 2013 when we were live-streaming the excavations [at Rising Star],” Berger told Business Insider South Africa. 

“I watched these remarkable scientists from the command centre on infrared cameras, with their equipment, the remoteness of where they were working deep in a cave … [and] the ever present danger really did [make] it feel like a Nasa mission.” 

Cross section of the Rising Star Cave system. The 'underground astronauts' will be expected to work in the Dinaledi section of the cave (Wikimedia Commons)

Berger says the applicants are required to be professional scientists with excellent skills in excavation, but also need to meet the “demanding physical and mental criteria to work in these very extreme, dangerous conditions”. 

“This is not for the faint-hearted.” 

The first “underground astronauts” – all women – took to the Rising star caves in 2013 where they uncovered 1,200 fossil elements. 

Their excavations led to the discovery of a new early human species called Homo Naledi, which roamed the earth roughly 250,000 years ago.

Berger at the reveal of Homo Naledi at The Cradle of Humankind in 2015 (Gallo Images, Denzil Maregele)

“All six of the original scientific team remained engaged with the project in significant ways and in fact, all have returned to work in one capacity or another over the past five years,” Berger says. 

“I think it's fair to say that for most of the people involved, it changed their lives.” 

Berger says with the upcoming execution in October, which will last roughly four weeks, he aims to find body structure bones of Homo Naledi among the “yields hundreds if not thousands of remains” in the caves. 

"We are also constantly looking for further evidence of how Naledi used the cave system. E.g. looking for artefacts or the presence of fire or other evidence of use." 

He says with the current call for “underground astronauts” he is looking to approach broader audiences. 

“We want young South Africans and Africans to engage in these exciting sciences and it's why I made special mention of looking for candidates from Africa in the Facebook and Twitter calls,” Berger says. 

Aspiring ‘underground astronauts’ can send a CV, at least two professional references, and a letter of motivation to Dr Bonita de Klerk of the LRB Foundation at leerbergerfoundation@gmail.com. 

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