Vancouver archaeologist helps discover an unknown species

Marina Elliott at the University Wits showing bones Photo – Courtesy of Wits University

Marina Elliott at the University Wits showing bones
Photo – Courtesy of Wits University

Trowelblazer: Vancouver archaeologist helps
discover an unknown species

Adapted from The Vancouver Sun by Nancy Carson
Level 3

Marina Elliott was studying at Simon Fraser University (SFU).
One day she noticed
an interesting ad on social media.
The job was in South Africa,
but there was no pay.
Lee Berger, an archaeologist,
needed help with a project.
Marina applied, and so did
fifty-six other scientists!

The ad
The ad asked for “tiny and
small cavers and spelunkers
with excellent archaeological,
palaeontological and excavation skills”.
Berger, a scientist, needed help,
because he was too big for the job.
The project would last 21 days.
One had to climb into a dark cave
and bring out pieces of bones.

Skills needed
Elliott was very excited.
She was studying our near-human ancestors.
She had experience in caves.
But was she small enough
to squeeze through the narrow passages?
One opening was 18-centimetres deep.
“I shoved myself under
some furniture to see whether
I could do it,” Elliott said.

Marina Elliott in the cave called Rising Star Photo – Courtesy of Wits University

Marina Elliott in the cave called Rising Star
Photo – Courtesy of Wits University

Elliott gets the job
Elliott and five other women
got the job.
The team members came from
Canada, Australia and the U.S.
National Geographic
was funding the expedition.
So, there was a lot of media attention.
By November 2013, Elliott was underground.

Doing the job
The women had to crawl
for 20 minutes through a dark tunnel.
The only light was on their heads.
At the end was a very small space.
They had to bring out bone pieces
from that chamber.
Three would go down at one time.
And they would be there for three hours.

The climb
The job was a team challenge.
The climbers could feel the rock
on both sides of their bodies.
In some places they had to wiggle
to move farther down the tunnel.
Once they reached the tiny cave,
they had to carefully change positions.
Sometimes their legs got tired.
Or their legs went numb.

The discovery
The name of the cave is Rising Star.
Everywhere there were bones.
Some days the climbers
stayed for six hours in the cave.
They did not want leave.
The team spent about six weeks
working on the discovery.
An Australian team member said,
“It was absolutely one of
the most exciting experiences of my life.”

Elen Feuerriegel, another member of the team Photo – Courtesy of Wits University

Elen Feuerriegel, another member of the team
Photo – Courtesy of Wits University

Unusual finding
All 1,500 bones were from one species.
The bones belonged to 15 individuals.
The species was named Homo naledi,
meaning “Star man”.
Naledi means “star” in Sesotho,
a local South African language.
Homo means man in Latin.
Humans are called Homo sapiens,
meaning “Wise man”.

Homo naledi
H. naledi had similar teeth,
arms and legs to modern humans*.
The feet bones found looked like ours.
Their brains were a third the size of a human’s.
Elliott said, “I don’t think
these creatures looked like us.”
But she says the creatures
could be “distant cousins”.

Find out more on eLife
Lee Berger and his fellow researchers
published their findings on the website eLife,
so anyone can access the research.
Berger says the discovery is
“the largest assemblage of fossil human relatives
ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa.”

Marina Elliott has finished her doctorate at SFU.
Now she is doing research on H. naledi
at the University of the Witwatersrand
in South Africa.

A trowel Photo by

A trowel is a tool used to excavate rocks.
Photo by Travis/CC, Flickr

Vocabulary

  1. Trowelblazer: women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists
    Trailblazer:  a person who does something or goes somewhere first,
    who shows that it is also possible for other people to do the same.
  2. spelunker (spee-lung-ker): one who makes a hobby
    of exploring and studying caves.
  3. archaeologist (ar-kee-ah-luh-jist): someone who examines
    ancient places and objects to learn about the past.
  4. palaeontology (pay-lee-un-tol-uh-jee): the study of fossils
    to determine the structure and evolution of extinct animals
    and plants and the age and conditions of the rock in which they are found.
  5. excavation: the removal of earth that is covering very old objects
    buried in the ground in order to discover things about the past.

Phrases in Sesotho:

  • Dumela –> Hello (sing.) /doo-MAY-lah/
  • Dumelang –> Hello (pl.) /doo-MAY-LUNG/
  • U phela joang? –> How are you? (sing.) /oop-HEALer-jwang/
  • Le phela joang –> How are you? (pl.) /lip-HEALer-jwang/
  • Kea phela –> I’m fine /key-upHEAler/
  • Rea phela –> We’re fine /re-upHEAler/
  • Uena? –> And you? /way-NAH/
  • Kea leboha –> Thank you /key-ah-lay-BOO-ha/
  • Tsamaea hantle –> Goodbye (you’re leaving) /tsah-MY-ah-HUN-clay/
  • Sala hantle –> Goodbye (I’m leaving) /SAL-ah-HUN-clay/

Links:

  1. Find out more about Homo naledi and other science research
  2. National Geographic article on H. naledi
  3. Read about another trowel blazer, Birdie Parker
  4. Pioneering women in archaeology
  5. Listen to Sotho music:

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