Rising Star

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Dinaledi skeletal specimens. This view is foreshortened; the table upon which the bones are arranged is 120-cm wide for scale. Photo By Lee Berger research team – CC BY 4.0

It’s not every day you see a Facebook post that changes your life, but that’s exactly what happened to Leakey Foundation grantee Alia Gurtov. Gurtov was checking her Facebook feed one morning and saw a post from paleoanthropologist Lee Berger. He was looking for archaeologists who were “…skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus. They must be willing to work in cramped quarters, have a good attitude and be a team player.” Gurtov had never seen a job description that fit her more perfectly.

A few weeks later she was in South Africa inside a cave chamber strewn with ancient bones. The fossils she helped recover there have changed the story of human evolution and added a strange new relative to our family tree.

In this episode of Origin Stories, Leakey Foundation grantees Alia Gurtov and Will Harcourt-Smith tell the story of the Rising Star Expedition and the discovery of Homo naledi.

Bonus Content



Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa.” eLife 

Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa.” eLife

The Foot of Homo naledi.Nature.

3D models of the Homo naledi fossils

Meet ‘Neo’, the Most Complete Homo naledi Fossil Ever Found.” New Scientist

National Geographic Education Explorer Classroom 

This Face Changes the Human Story. But, How?National Geographic.

The Dawn of Humanity.” NOVA/National Geographic.

Photo Gallery


Editor Julia Barton 

Series Producer Meredith Johnson

Associate Producer Shuka Kalantari


Sound Design Katie McMurran

Theme Music Henry Nagle 

Intern Yuka Oiwa

Additional Music Lee Rosevere