media release

Student caver helps unearth hominid treasure

November 28, 2013

Marina Elliott, (as of Dec. 8) 604.868.1752,
Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 778.782.3035,

Note: Marina’s email access is limited while in the field in South Africa


Caving and archaeology have come together to catapult Simon Fraser University doctoral student Marina Elliott into a fossilized world where she has helped uncover an exciting new hominid treasure in a well-hidden South African cave.

Elliott, a student of Mark Collard—an evolutionary anthropologist in the Faculty of Environment—is among six primary excavators who’ve unearthed a cache of more than 1,200 ancient bones, including a palm-sized piece of cranium.

The excavators—all slim female archaeologists and cavers—had to take turns in twos and threes to squeeze through the cave’s 18cm-wide opening. They then descended 30 metres into its bowels to make their discovery.

They are part of the Rising Star Expedition team led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger, a research professor in human evolution in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg.

The expedition team had been exploring caves in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, 50 kilometres from Johannesburg for about a month when it stumbled upon one littered with bones on the surface.

Elliott, the team’s only Canadian member, says, “We knew there’d probably be more bones below.”

That’s when Elliott’s and her female colleagues’ compact anatomies and caving skills came into play. Experienced in climbing and caving in the Rockies, Elliott had acquired a yen for these sports as an Alberta-reared youth slithering in and out of small caves in the Badlands and the Rockies. This was the first time she applied those skills to archaeology.

She and fellow archaeologist Becca Peixotto worked overtime one day to retrieve their cranial cache, carefully.

“It’s always very exciting to uncover a recognizable bone, and this one was challenging to remove,” explains Elliott, a Vancouver resident who returns home Dec. 7. “We excavated carefully around it until it was fully exposed, then very, very gently lifted it from the ground, wrapped it in bubble wrap, placed it in a small but strong container and had a group of people to hand-carry it out of the cave.”

The team won’t be able to nail down the age, species, sex and other details about its cranial find until the skull section is analysed back at Wits.

That’s where Elliott’s expertise in the analysis of bones will come into play. For her doctoral thesis, she is using whole-body, three-dimensional CT data to evaluate how paleoanthropologists and biological anthropologists estimate body mass from skeletal remains.

It’s an important issue in human origins research, she says, because body mass measurements are used to interpret biology and behaviour, but their use hasn’t been well validated.

Wits and National Geographic are funding this expedition. To follow its progress, visit the National Geographic blog.

Simon Fraser University is consistently ranked among Canada's top comprehensive universities and is one of the top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old. With campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, B.C., SFU engages actively with the community in its research and teaching, delivers almost 150 programs to more than 30,000 students, and has more than 120,000 alumni in 130 countries.


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