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PAIA, 2000 (Act 2 of 2000) 

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Working in a time warp
16 April 2010

The skeleton so far extracted, of the juvenile Australopithecus sediba. Work continues

Working carefully and quietly, preparators at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research gently prise rare fossils from rock brought back from the field.

CHARLTON Dube works in a time warp - a two-million-year-old warp to be exact.

 He and his team sit in a dusty laboratory in the University of the Witwatersrand's Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, quietly labouring away at bringing fossils back to life by extracting them from their rock prisons.

Charlton Dube at his microscope, drill in hand
Charlton Dube at his microscope, drill in hand

They worked on the recently unveiled Australopithecus sediba skeletons, a new hominid species discovered at the Cradle of Humankind, northwest of Joburg.

"We prepared most of sediba, working on it for 18 months," says Dube. "It was exciting to work on it, being the first hominid I have ever worked on." Preparation of the two skeletons is ongoing.

Dube and his team of nine are called preparators, an appropriate term for people who spend their days preparing world-renowned fossils. The team works under the mentorship of the institute's director, Professor Bruce Rubidge, who trained Dube.

The group sits at a long desk facing the wall, each peering into a microscope and holding an air drill, working meticulously at drilling away rock from rare fossil. The room buzzes to the drills, and the quiet concentration of each preparator.

But Dube has made his own significant discovery. Back in 2008 he discovered a specimen of the "poorly known" Broomia perplexa, only the second one of the species ever found, on a farm in Prince Albert in the Eastern Cape.

He found just the skull of the pre-dinosaur creature and spent two years extracting it from the rock in which it was embedded. He says it would have been the size of a domestic cat but with small tusks.

He also co-authored the scientific paper that was written to detail the find, together with Rubidge and two other scientists, for the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. "It was mentioned in several papers around the world," he says with modest pride.

"Charlton is an exceptionally diligent young man," says Rubidge, who has headed the institute for the past 20 years. "He is a good preparator and good at handling people. He has a good understanding of what laboratories are about.

"We have a world-class laboratory, producing world-class preparation," confirms Rubidge.

Risky processes
Dube says it is difficult to extract fossils from rock. They have to use acid, which is always risky. "We don't play around with any chemicals or glues," he says. The wrong strength can do irreparable damage to a fossil, as well as injure a preparator.

The skull of the sediba will probably be left within the rock
The skull of the sediba will probably be left within the rock

Recounting an incident in which he ordered a certain strength of acid, he says he didn't notice that what was received was a third higher strength. He got just the vapours of the chemical around a fingernail, and spent an unhappy night with a yellow, burning finger. He lost the fingernail and went through a lot of pain.

"It was a nightmare; safety is very important," he admits.

Patience and discipline
The greatest asset in being a preparator, he says, is to be patient and have discipline. "You need to handle the fossils gently, and understand that things can't talk to you and say ‘you're hurting me,'" he says.

And it involves good communication skills, requiring that a preparator consults with colleagues when an issue seems insurmountable. Dube says that he "dances around the rock" when trying to disentangle teeth, because they are such important fossils.

Another challenge for a preparator is eggs. These are usually sent overseas because the shells are very fragile and can be easily damaged, although Dube expresses a desire to have a try at preparing eggs.

Originally from Zimbabwe, he taught for several years in a school in Bulawayo, but came to South Africa, where he has lived ever since. Once his two teenage children are off his hands, he would like to study for a science degree at the University of the Witwatersrand.

His father also worked in the laboratory as a preparator for 20 years; it was he who alerted the younger Dube to a vacancy in the lab. That was in 1994, and Dube is still there. He has been on short courses in France and China, to enhance his preparator skills.

A colleague, Sifelani Jirah, started working in the lab with a bachelor of science degree. He has completed his honours degree and is working on his masters. In time, he wants to complete his doctorate in palaentology. He spends time in the field, where he looks for fossils. He is a part-time student at Wits, and plans to return to his native Zimbabwe when he has his doctorate.

"I will work here until I retire," says Dube, with a wide smile. He's only 45 now, so he's probably going to work on many more Australopithecus sediba skeletons before retirement.

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Last Updated on 30 April 2010