Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, February 21, 2018

AU PhD student helps discover new species

AU PhD student helps discover new species

The “underground astronauts” (Peixotto on left) excavated the chamber where a species of human relative was discovered. The University of the Witwatersrand, National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation announced the find. 

- Photo contributed by John Hawks

Growing up, Becca Peixotto would spend her time digging around in the backyard to see what the people who lived there had left behind. Now, she’s part of the team that unearthed a new hominin species that lived on earth before homo sapiens.

“It certainly has the potential to challenge what we think we know about our shared past,” Peixotto, a doctoral student in the College of Arts and Sciences, said. “We’ve learned more, but it also raises all these questions and I think that’s pretty exciting.”

The project began in September 2013, when local spelunkers in South Africa, Rick Hunter and Steve Tucker, discovered fossils at the end of a narrow, underground tunnel in the Rising Star cave system. They brought their findings to the attention of Lee Berger, an anthropologist and professor at University of the Witwatersrand, who posted an ad on Facebook for “tiny and small specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills,” British newspaper the Guardian reported.

By early November, the 4-foot-10-inch Peixotto, who had just received her master’s degree from AU’s Anthropology department, had responded to the ad and was on her way to South Africa.

“We thought we were going in for just a few fossils,” she said. “But within just a couple days, really by the end of the first day of excavation, we realized that it was more than one, and pretty soon it was up to 15 and that just hasn’t happened before.”

As the cave was being excavated by a team of six women, anthropologists recorded and catalogued the fossils on site. The initial excavation lasted for 21 days, followed by a second excavation in March 2014.

Peixotto said it is not uncommon in archeology to stop midway through a project for scientists to analyze the findings and reconsider their approach.

In the months after the excavation, scientists compared the fossils found at the site with data from various universities around the world. On Sept. 10, they announced the discovery of an entirely new species, homo naledi, in the journal eLife. While Peixotto was not part of this part of the project, she co-authored one of two papers on the findings.

“[Scientists] were coming from all over, from South Africa, from other countries from different parts of South Africa,” she said. “I was just really impressed with everyone’s ability to work together and share ideas.”

Sharing anthropological knowledge and ensuring open access to scientific research is a particular passion for Peixotto, who currently works as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Anthropology and hopes to become a professor down the road.

“There’s a purpose behind what we’re doing in the Department of Anthropology,” she said. “We’re not doing science for science’s sake, we’re not doing social science just for the sake of doing it, but it’s how does this impact the broader world, how can we identify social justice issues and how can we address them.”

Gender equality is one of those social justice issues apparent in anthropology. Peixotto said that one of the problems she sees in STEM fields is the disparity between the percentage of women in the field and the percentage of women holding higher positions in research and academia.

“Why is there so much focus on us six [excavators] being women?” she asked. “It gives us a good platform, but it’s still considered an amazing thing that women are going in a cave and digging up bones — like why is that weird?”

Peixotto will discuss such issues and more about homo naledi during a session of the Social Justice Colloquium Fall Series. The series will be held at AU on Mondays at noon beginning September 14 until November 23 and is open to the AU community. Peixotto will give her talk on September 28 at 12:30 p.m. in the Abramson Family Recital Hall.

asrikanth@theeagleonline.com


Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.