Burying the dead

If you have a subscription to Netflix, you might want to watch Unknown: Cave of Bones, about the discovery of Homo naledi in the Rising Star cave system. It’s spectacular.

On the other hand, if you’re claustrophobic, you might want to skip it. I’m not particularly, but I watched the video of those women wriggling their way down a narrow crack to reach the Dinaledi Chamber gave me a rising sense of panic. There’s no way I could put myself in that position without having a screaming heebie-jeebie fit.

If you can get past that, though, it’s worth it to watch the adventure of science.


  1. Matt G says

    I remember the NOVA special about this. The conditions for recruitment were (IIRC) that you had to have (or be getting) a Ph.D. in the field, and be of a certain size or smaller.

  2. hemidactylus says

    There’s a documentary that shows cave divers exploring the nooks and crannies of the underground aquifer system in Central Florida. Some of the passages were a tight squeeze with dive equipment. Mix claustrophobia with fear of drowning or watch Cameron’s Sanctum,

  3. wzrd1 says

    hemidactylus, yeah, cave diving is pretty much about as dangerous as going streaking outside of the international space station. The risk of entrapment and damage to equipment is extremely high. The watch modes, caution, extreme caution and absolutely paranoid caution. Then, one looks at the high chance of nitrogen narcosis…
    Not trained for that, so I’d always take a hard pass. Wouldn’t mind some competent training in that rarefied field though.

    Wriggling through the Rising Star cave system, I’d have no problem with that, although there would likely be damage induced by this old fart’s profanity in the squeeze zones. Might end up glazing the narrowest zones, resulting in their becoming impassible.
    I’d also drag a sked with a few small imaging robots for even tinier passages exploration, small high energy battery packs, some additional lights (thank cleverness for LED lights!) and some decent magnifiers for these old eyes to see anything smaller than my head with once I’m there.
    And leave the lights for the next team, the batteries have to come back out for charging and safety.
    Given the location and difficult access, an amazing find!

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Yes, cave diving is appallingly dangerous.
    And the water is usually opaque from silt, so you see nothing.
    There is BTW a quite good science fiction novel, “The Luminous Dead”, that combines the claustrophobia of protacted cave exploration with the creepiness of a Philip K. Dick novel where you don’t know for sure what is real or not.
    The length of the novel and the absence of spectacular explosions should make it boring, but the psychological drama is tense up to the very end.
    PS -never do cave exploration on other planets! Ever.

  5. raven says

    “The smallest point to the Dinaledi Chamber is known as “Superman’s Crawl” because most cavers can only manage to squeeze through by extending one arm above the head while holding the other tight against the body. It’s basically a narrow, vertical (my note, they must mean almost horizontal) like the diagram above) 12-meter (39-foot) long “chimney” with an average width of 20 cm (7.9 inches).”

    A lot of people won’t fit through an 8 inch passage.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Intransitive @ 5
    There are even some snake-like robots developed to get into partially collapsed buildings and such that would be obvious canditates for this research.

    Regarding cave diving- it should be possible to let robots go ahead and set up caches with extra oxygen tanks, and ropes guidning divers to the right openings.

    Maybe even underwater jackhammers to create “domes” under the ceiling where divers can stick their heads over the surface, and read instructions carved into the rock about the direction to the exit. Also a good place to stash extra air rubes.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    Räven @ 8
    I know we should not inflict damage on neutral caves, but in the name of science please bring down machinery to widen the openings. Once the opening has been examined for traces of anything of archarological interest.

  8. says

    Unfortunately, the documentary spends too much time on Lee Berger, who is a fine scientist, losing weight and trying (successfully!) to squeeze into Dinaledi cave. I’d rather have seen more time on the women who are just as smart and closer to the size of Homo naledi.
    Robots wouldn’t do the job. This is fine work by experts — I was impressed when one identified a small rodent bone, carefully separating it from the dirt. Even with telecommunication and remotes I don’t think a robot would have the ability to do what trained human hands can do.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    Why would Superman crawl? Couldn’t he just bore out a larger passage with his eye-rays?

  10. StevoR says

    @2. hemidactylus : “Some of the passages were a tight squeeze with dive equipment. Mix claustrophobia with fear of drowning or watch Cameron’s Sanctum,”

    Or the Descent and its sequel – powerful and truly scary horror movie(s)..

  11. says

    Oh, I’ll certainly watch that. My touch of claustrophobia won’t be an issue, because I know damn well I would never go into a place such as that. I’ve watched a lot of “caving gone wrong” videos on YouTube; this will be a nice change of pace from those, I think.
    The only cave I’ve ever entered is Derrick Cave in central Oregon, and then I only went as far as one could walk upright. There’s a “Big Room” that’s like 80 feet wide and 46 feet high and has a skylight. Caving for people who don’t like caves.
    Thanks for the tip.

  12. says

    It is a fascinating story including Lee Bergers loss of weight so he could squeeze through the cave. I used to cave until I got a nasty illness which required taking copious steroids to treat. The resulting weight gain and other problems put paid to that. I can remember many years ago on a practice cave rescue exercise with our state police rescue squad. We had selected a particularly tight cave to extract a casualty from. It has a difficult squeeze which had only one way through.. Most of the police made it through but one particularly muscular guy couldn’t had to wait outside assigned to relay messages. We had a system with these practice exercises that if anything went wrong we would declare an authentic emergency so all resources could be focused on dealing with it. Unknown to most of the participants the plan was to wait until everyone was in the cave preparing to carryout the mock rescue then declare it a genuine emergency to test everyone’s response. The oversize police officer wasn’t in on this and when he heard he forced his way through the tight squeeze to help his mates. You guessed it. A real exercise trying to get him back out. Eventually with the length of the squeeze lined with the skinniest cavers available and him stripped to his jocks so his clothes wouldn’t catch we played pass the parcel to get him out. Once he got out a very sheepish copper got a lecture from his boss about not abandoning his post and rushing in without a proper plan and back up in place. There is quite a risk to what they are doing. If its really hard to get into the cave it will be even harder to get someone out if something goes wrong.

  13. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @PZ #12:

    the documentary spends too much time on Lee Berger […] losing weight […] I’d rather have seen more time on the women

    World of Paleoanthropology interviewed Lee Berger, running the Rising Star project, again last week (55:24). The channel has lots of Naledi stuff, including others on the team: Juliet Brophy, Marina Elliott, Zandile Ndaba, Keneiloe Molopyane, John Hawks, Lindsay Hunter, and Rick Hunter.

    Story of Us podcast: Apple and YT Playlist.
    * Other playlists on the YT channel too.
    * No traditional RSS audio feed currently.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    raven @ # 8: … a narrow, vertical (my note, they must mean almost horizontal) … 8 inch passage.

    IANACaver, but I infer from your wording that the passage in question may qualify as “vertical” by measuring 8″ wide and at least twice that high – or very very few human adults could ever squeeze through.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    1: lay out plastic tarps on the ground of the cave after superman’s crawl, to avoid disturbing sediments.
    2: drill a hole from the ground down through the ceiling. Install ladders.
    3: unleash a big herd of experts in the field, as now they only need to negotiate dragon’s back.

  16. wzrd1 says

    And don’t light fires until you’ve taken scrapings to collect any soot from previous fires, perhaps?

  17. birgerjohansson says

    Wzrd1 @ 21
    I assume all lighting will be electric, to avoid contamination.

  18. says

    Thar looks so interesting! I’ve been to the Sterkfontein Caves, of course, but there are so many other little cave systems in the area not open to visitors. :(

  19. jimzy says

    I went on a guided tour of California Caverns. One had to be small enough to get into the “Womb Room” to qualify for the tour. I had to take the Life Savers out of my chest pocket to get in. Where our 90 (80?) pound guide was going through on his hands and knees, I had to shimmy through with my arms over my head. The “gelding stones” were rather uncomfortable. If I weighed 80 pounds I’d spend my life underground.

  20. wzrd1 says

    birgerjohansson @ 22, you’d have to watch the film to know what I’m talking about. They did a “demonstration” of lighting a fire inside of the cave system.
    I’d have never allowed that until I got scrapings to search for combustion products, then hope I could get enough for C-14 dating of the residue.

    I’m with PZ though on robots. It’s one thing to use instrumentation and imagers on a robot, fossils and bones are way too delicate for robots to attempt to handle currently. I’ve handled specimens on a dig that were so delicate that I elected to transport the entire section of soil with the specimen to keep it intact. And that was with specimens only a century or so old.