What it’s like to be an ‘underground astronaut’ in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind

Archaeologist and biological anthropologist Keneiloe Molopyane became a member of the second generation of South Africa’s “underground astronauts” in 2018 — tasked with traversing the Rising Star cave system through “very extreme conditions” in order to get to the famed Homo naledi fossil site. She is seen here en route to the Dinaledi Chamber coming out of Superman’s Crawl, a passage less than 25 centimeters in height. Courtesy Keneiloe Molopyane
In 2019, she returned to Rising Star with a team to further excavate the second site where additional bones belonging to Homo naledi were found, including the most complete skeleton to date. Here, the team works in the Lesedi Chamber. Courtesy Keneiloe Molopyane

Molopyane discovered her purpose in life as a seven-year-old while watching an archaeology-themed cartoon. “I was always fascinated by puzzles and solving mysteries,” she says. Courtesy Keneiloe Molopyane

Today, Molopyane leads a team exploring another cave on the Rising Star property known as UW 105, which is part of the large network of underground caves in the Cradle of Humankind, located roughly 50 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. Ian Hooper for CNN
The discovery of UW 105 was made public in late 2020. Like many of the caves in the Cradle of Humankind, it had been blasted through by miners in the early 20th century — dislodging fossil remains in the process. Ian Hooper for CNN

Molopyane examines a ‘fossil wall’ in one of the chambers at the UW 105 site. “I love what I do simply because it’s not conventional. I don’t drive to an office; I drive out to the middle of nowhere and get to go crawling around in a cave all day and exploring. No day is the same and that is the best,” she says. Grant Nelson for CNN

Much of the UW 105 site is comprised of malmani dolomite, a natural rock found in the area. But when the team comes across a block of sedimentary rock known as breccia, “we get excited because that’s a potential fossil-bearing rock,” explains Molopyane. Grant Nelson for CNN

Molopyane examines a breccia block — “a beautiful block with fossil remains,” adding that it “looks like a very big animal, probably the head of a femur or humerus, (but) not quite sure.” Grant Nelson for CNN

For a better and cleaner look, fossil-bearing breccia blocks are brought to the surface to be washed and readied for closer inspection. Grant Nelson for CNN

Molopyane and a team of scientists have been meticulously mapping out the UW 105 area and are creating an above-ground replica of the cave system using non-fossil-bearing rocks to analyze their findings more thoroughly. Grant Nelson for CNN

Seen here from above, Molopyane says the mock-up cave on the surface is an innovative exercise, explaining in a blog post that “it’s amazing what a bird’s-eye view and some sunlight can do to enhance your perspective!” Ian Hooper for CNN
Not all of Moloypyane’s time is spent outdoors or in claustrophobic conditions. Here in the Phillip V. Tobias Fossil Primate and Hominid Laboratory at Wits University she gets a rare look at the Taung Child remains, which was a significant find in 1924. “This fossil here is what broke the internet before the internet was a thing,” she says. Grant Nelson for CNN
Looking at a cast of “Mrs. Ples,” the nickname for one of the most complete pre-human skulls ever found in South Africa, she says the fossil would play a role in “the start of my paleoanthropological journey.” Her fascination piqued at 12 years old, during a school trip to the Sterkfontein Caves where the original fossil was discovered. In 2019, she went on to become the curator of the Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves visitor center, interacting with and telling many stories about the remains. Grant Nelson for CNN

With pieces of the original Homo naledi fossil collection laying on the table in front of her, Molopyane shows a reconstruction of what scientists believe a complete skull from the species might have looked like, adding, “the preservation on these fossils are incredible. We don’t get a lot of this at most fossil sites in the world.” Grant Nelson for CNN

For all her accomplishments at this early stage of her career, Molopyane says she’s an introvert and remains modest. “Lots of people refer to me as a scientist. (But) I don’t think I am. I’m just a girl who loves archaeology and paleoanthropology subsequently,” she says. But she does have some fitting encouragement to offer budding scientists: “There is ‘no one size fits’ all piece of advice — all I can say is, just follow your heart. Nobody should be able to tell you what to do and if you really feel strongly about it, you’ll make it work. Just be you.” Grant Nelson for CNN

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