Who are the Underground Astronauts?

Spelunking in a dark, labyrinthine cave is a tough ask at the best of times. Add fossil excavation through an 18-centimetre wide gap into the mix and you have a job that only a handful of people in the world can do.

Enter the underground astronauts.

This all-women crack team of six ‘trowelblazers’ was assembled thanks to an extensive social media campaign. The combination of job requirements was unique: a master’s degree or higher in palaeontology, archeology or an associated field; caving experience; and the ability to fit through an 18-centimetre ‘squeeze’ in the cave in order to reach the Dinaledi Chamber.

It just so happened that, out of more than 50 applicants, the people most qualified for the job were all young, slender women.

Meet the underground astronauts who undertook a dangerous, difficult, dirty underground job :

  • Becca Peixotto

    Becca Peixotto is an archaeologist and Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. Her areas of specialisation and interest are historic landscapes, material culture, geographic information, ideas of wilderness, and public engagement with the past. A field archaeologist with experience in all phases of archaeological survey and excavation, Peixotto is also an experienced outdoor educator with expertise in wilderness expeditions in mountain and desert environments. She often finds herself excavating in remote, difficult to reach places like the Rising Star cave fossil hominid deposit and maroon community sites in the Great Dismal Swamp.

  • K. Lindsay Hunter

    K. Lindsay Hunter is a biological anthropologist whose interests range from paleoanthropology to anthrozoology, and encompass everything in between. She received her Masters from the University of Iowa, where she was advanced to PhD candidacy (ABD, All But Dissertation) before leaving the program. Lindsay is passionate about applying a holistic, four-field anthropological approach to her work, and following the 2013 Rising Star Expedition, she has undertaken primatological and ethnographic field research for Sepela Field Programs (http://www.sepela.org/), with a focus on human-wildlife conflict in South Africa. Lindsay lives with her husband Rick Hunter (whom she met during Rising Star Expedition) in Johannesburg, where they are both active cavers and members of the Speleological Exploration Club.

  • Marina Elliott

    Marina Elliott is originally from Calgary, Canada, and has a Master’s degree in biological anthropology from Simon Fraser University, Canada. She recently completed her PhD at the same institution. In November 2013, Marina was selected to be one of six Advanced Scientists for the Rising Star Expedition, a unique excavation to recover fossil hominin material in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. Marina is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

  • Elen Feuerriegel

    Elen Feuerriegel is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, studying shoulder biomechanics with Colin Groves in Oldowan stone tool manufacture. Elen is also an Honorary Research Fellow with the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She graduated with First Class Honours from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2011, and from the Australian National University in 2012 with a Masters in Biological Anthropology.

  • Hannah Morris

    Hannah Morris is an archaeologist with a passion for understanding how humans and plants interacted in the past. She received her Bachelors degree from the University of Georgia, a Masters degree from the Ohio State University, and will begin her PhD studies at the University of Georgia in the fall of 2015. She has been a part of archaeological investigations around the world, working in Alaska, New York City, and Mexico. Most recently she was a part of the Rising Star Expedition in South Africa, excavating early hominid remains from within a cave in the Cradle of Humankind. She has a broad interest in how humans have modified the ecological landscape, including current vegetative changes related to climate change.

  • Alia Gurtov

    Alia Gurtov is a University of Wisconsin – Madison Ph.D. candidate researching the effects of seasonality on hominin foraging at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. She began her career in anthropology at Wellesley College, where she earned her BA in a four field anthropology program. After graduating, she spent one year as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow researching the intersection of nationalism and paleoanthropology in Europe, Asia and Africa, and participated in Pleistocene excavations at Neumark Nord, Germany, and Pinnacle Point, South Africa. She completed her MA in archaeology at Leiden University. In 2010, Alia was accepted to the department of anthropology at UW – Madison and has since earned an MS in anthropology and published several articles. Her ongoing research as part of the Rising Star team will facilitate future integrative research that compares hominin evolution in the differing ecological contexts of eastern and southern Africa.