Come for the science, flee from the claustrophobic horror

This video includes snippets showing exactly what it was like to crawl through those narrow tunnels to get at the Homo naledi fossil site.

No, thank you. Can we get one of those big subway tunnel excavators to the cave? It needs widening.


  1. Chris Whitehouse says

    I gave up trying to calculate the amount of money it would take to get me into one of those holes.
    Homo claustrophobi would have been a better name.

  2. Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff says

    You know those videos where linemen climb up to the top of 2,000-foot radio towers, unclip their safety harnesses, and swing around? I would rather do that 10 times than work my way through those caves.

    Just the few seconds of cave footage made my skin crawl.

    Kudos to those who can do this. (shudder)!

  3. Cuttlefish says

    Way back in church camp (I guess I might have been maybe 12 years old?) we found a limestone cave to explore. I remember squeezing through a tiny passage with a flashlight (at the time, I didn’t stop to think that the staff would never have been able to get to me, had they even known to look), excited that perhaps no one else had made it that far… only to find candy wrappers in the chamber beyond. I cleaned the place up so no one else would have that disappointment.

    I find myself fighting down anxiety attacks thinking about my own caving now, knowing full well I made it out safe and sound. I absolutely cannot linger on the thought of this current discovery without my sympathetic nervous system erupting in panic mode.

  4. Daz365365 . says

    They mention intentional burial does that mean taken in and covered over or just chucked down a hole away from their living area?

  5. Rich Woods says

    @Daz365365 #5:

    I don’t think a body could be dropped down a gap that narrow; it would just get stuck (even allowing for them being smaller than us), and in any case the bones weren’t found directly below a vertical shaft. I think it would take a couple of people to get a body in there, although there is the alternative of just taking the bones in once they’d been defleshed in some fashion (there is evidence for this practice in several societies, but all modern H. sapiens ones).

    What really gets me is that people went in there either in the dark or with a very basic (and hence unreliable) light source. I don’t think these bones have been dated yet, but I remember indicators of our ancestors not learning how to use fire until somewhere between 1.2 and 1.8 million years ago.

  6. carlie says

    My first thought in hearing about it was “dear god, don’t we have robots for this type of thing?!” Seriously. We can control a robot that picks up rocks on Mars, we should be able to send one into a cave and take some pics and pick up bones.


  7. says

    I highly suggest checking out the latest NOVA episode “Dawn of Humanity” about the discovery (and those damn caves). Some good background on the area and historical findings around there:

    Note: There does seem to be a bit of jumping-to-conclusions in the episode, especially since the findings have yet to be dated.

  8. Ed Seedhouse says

    While I can see why you would like an easy entrance, I do not share your desire. Well, should we put roads up all the high mountains too?

    Nope, there are places on this planet that are very hard to get to. I’ve been to a few of them when I was young and healthy, but I have no desire to be given a royal road to these places no that I am too old to reach them. They are special just because it’s hard to get to them. In my senescence I am happy to leave the ones I visited and the multitude I didn’t to those who have the strength, skill, and stamina to reach them.

    I believe it is likely in this case that there was an easier entrance in the past, but that might be just a prejudiced opinion about the abilities of our distant ancestors.

  9. says

    Over 50 years ago I was carrying out research on cave formation and went through a number of very tight holes in order to make observations, although none involved anything as exciting as human remains.
    On thing that interests me is that the bone chamber is reached by climbing a large pile of boulders and descending down a very tight passage to reach the bones. I believe this pile included big boulders that have fallen from the roof and it may be that at least some of the boulders have fallen since the bones got into the cave and originally the drop into the chamber was more easily reached.
    However the detailed description of the chamber itself, with the remains of stalagmite floors on muddy deposits where the mud has later been washed away, suggests that even if the approach has been modified by rock falls the chamber has remained much the same – apart from the influx of water on various occasions.

  10. Dark Jaguar says

    Funny, this is one of the phobias I don’t have. I love feeling “snug”, and nothing’s more snug than being hugged by two sets of subterranean strata.

    As long as it isn’t in earthquake country… I’d be a bit more nervous in that scenario.

    Nah, I’m fine with the cave itself, but if there’s even one spider within a cubic metron of my location (the “metron” defined as “whatever my fear centers say it is at the moment”), I’ll punch up straight through the bedrock (physics be damned) to get out.

  11. anbheal says

    Heh heh, while I agree philosophically with @9 Ed Seedhouse, middle-age has softened my resolve. There are a pair of lovely cenotes near Valladolid, on the Yucatan, which required a ride on horseback to get there, a rigorous rope climb down and back, and a waterproof flashlight mounted on a helmet or mask to see a damn thing twenty years ago. Now they have a ticket booth, changing lockers, carved in steps, and disco lights that change colors every few moments. It’s really quite awful, but then again, I was able to snorkel in them again.

    I also admired El Chapo’s escape tunnel being exactly 5’7″ tall, with him at 5’6″, so he didn’t need to stoop over the mile stroll. Little snack and tequila kiosks en route were a nice touch as well. Let’s not knock underground comfort too much.

  12. Die Anyway says

    In his book about Easter Island, Thor Heyerdahl describes crawling through cave passages like that. I got the willies just reading about it, can’t imagine actually being in that situation.
    I love reading/hearing about these anthropological finds though so hope there is more to come.

  13. shoeguy says

    Didn’t the project deliberately recruit small competent female anthropologists because they can fit through the tight tunnels and choke points. The head of the dig admitted he couldn’t fit into the cave and would never see the fossil beds in person. The idea that hominids as early as those found would have ritual burial. It was a known fact gleaned from old Tarzan movies that elephants had burial grounds so why not our ancestors?