“By the time the interview was over, I knew that if by some miracle I got this chance, I was going to drop everything and go.” ~Becca Peixotto (far left in photo)
By: Katlin Chadwick, Writer at American University
When Becca Peixotto and the other five scientists on the Rising Star excavation team arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, they hoped for something big. Fossils from a single skeleton, perhaps, that could help inform our evolutionary timeline.
But once they maneuvered their way through the cave, down a skinny, jagged chute, and into the hidden Dinaledi chamber, none were prepared for what they found. The floor was quite literally covered in fossils.
So they got to work. Each uncovered fossil was assigned a number, placed in a plastic bag, bubble-wrapped, put in a plastic container, and bubble-wrapped again to send back up the chute. They’d brought along the packaging needed for a three-week excavation, but after just three days, they’d already gone through their entire supply of plastic containers.
Skulls. Femurs. 190 teeth. Enough replicated pieces to suggest 15 separate individuals. This was an unprecedented find in this type of fossil hominid work.
An Unexpected Chance
Becca is a historical archaeologist focused on artifacts. In her public anthropology master’s program at American University and ongoing PhD work (also at AU), she’s worked in remote sites uncovering pieces of civilizations past—for example, a prehistoric Native American village in Frederick, Md., and the Great Dismal Swamp in southeast Virginia. The latter is the topic of her master’s thesis and current PhD work.
Some of her excavations have involved human remains, but hominid morphology, as it’s called, is a whole other specialty entirely. So how did Becca end up unearthing what would turn out to be one of the greatest hominid discoveries in history? She credits it to a combination of things.
At the time the call went out for the Rising Star expedition, Becca had just finished her graduate program and was looking for more archaeology experience before starting her PhD. She’s also a wilderness expert and first responder familiar with leading large adventure trips involving caving, backpacking, rock climbing and ropes work.
So when Rising Star’s head scientist posted the Facebook ad seeking scientists with caving experience, it was almost too good to be true.
“It seemed written for me,” Becca says. “It was a chance to combine my two skillsets of archeology and a background in adventure and wilderness.”
She sent off her application, thinking her chances were slim. But to her surprise, they requested a Skype interview.
“By the time the interview was over, I knew that if by some miracle I got this, I was going to drop everything and go.”
Theory Strengthens Practice
Becca wasn’t the only non-paleoanthropologist on the team. Each of the scientists brought different perspectives into the cave. Becca added historical archaeology and an ability to analyze situations in tough environments. And all teammates brought the willingness to squeeze into small spaces.
“The exchange of ideas between us as we were excavating was incredible. We all had different ways of thinking about how things might be arranged and what our next move should be. Paleoanthropologists approach excavations differently than anthropologists.” This combination was an advantage.
“The cave site was actually very much like an archaeological setting in that the fossils were in a loose setting rather than rock. So we non-paleoanthropologists were able to add that sensibility to the excavation.”
AU’s public anthropology program was good preparation. Because it’s a four-field department, Becca had collaborated with other scientists before. “It helps to work with other specialties because everyone brings something to the table. You can approach the same question in very different ways.”
Her field experience in the Great Dismal Swamp was what gave her the courage to apply to the position in the first place. The theoretical study back on campus helped with the rest.
“AU professors asked us to think deeply about all types of anthropology topics. It was the level of academic and theoretical thought required that gave me the confidence to hang with these big scientists.”
There’s still a lot to do, but in her work Becca wants to follow the Rising Star model in how it’s made this discovery—and scientific research at large—accessible to the bigger world.
Click to learn more about a master’s degree in public anthropology from American University.
Photo credit: The “underground astronauts” (left to right): Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, Elen Feuerriegel, Marina Elliott, K. Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter and Hannah Morris. The team of scientists excavated the chamber where H. naledi, a new species of human relative, was discovered. The find was announced by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation and published in the journal eLife. Photo by John Hawks