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Unearthed: Fossil remains make two UW students a part of biggest find in Africa

Deep in a cave in South Africa, UW graduate student, post-doctorate fellow help research and name new hominin
Unearthed: Fossil remains make two UW students a part of biggest find in Africa
John Hawks

What started as a simple post on Facebook would eventually lead two young University of Wisconsin researchers to become part of a discovery of a lifetime.

The discovery of a new hominin, Homo naledi, made national and international news Sept. 10 as one of the largest discoveries of hominins in Africa to date.

UW graduate student Alia Gurtov woke up one morning in early 2013 and began scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed when she saw a post from Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist, who had found hominin fossils in a few years earlier in Africa, calling for small-bodied, experienced excavators who were ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice.

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Having received a Thomas J. Watson fellowship, Gurtov traveled the world for a year pursuing her own independent studies before returning to the U.S. and getting her masters.

Alia Gurtov
Anne Blackbourn

Gurtov graduated with an anthropology degree from Wellesley College before getting her masters in Paleolithic anthropology at Leiden University.

Gurtov said using social media has become an increasingly popular practice to share information in the anthropology field.

“These days, at least in the field of anthropology, social media has been a way to stay up to date on new discoveries,” Gurtov said.

After being accepted to the team, Gurtov was one of six women small and experienced enough to crawl through the close dimensions of the cave to retrieve the fossils.

The team itself consisted of early-career scientists from a variety of backgrounds, Gurtov said. Some of these scientists were more anatomically informed, while Gurtov had more of an archeologist excavator and paleoanthropologist background.

“It was great, these are some of the most experienced early-career scientists that you could hope for and they all have a variety of backgrounds,” Gurtov said.

After finishing the excavation process of the fossils, Gurtov was then welcomed back in May 2014 for a five-week workshop in South Africa to analyze and compare the features of this unknown creature’s fossils to some early and late hominins.

While at the workshop, Gurtov was part of the tooth team. The team worked together to analyze and compare a variety of features of the teeth to other early and late hominins.

Joining Gurtov at this workshop was post-doctorate fellow Caroline Van Sickle. Like Gurtov, Van Sickle too had seen a post on Facebook asking for early-career researchers who had data on various types of skeletons and hominins.

As the first Wittig Postdoctoral Fellow in Feminist Biology in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at UW, Van Sickle also teaches biology gender and women studies courses. Additionally Van Sickle conducts research on hominin gender and sex in the in the Anthropology Department.

Van Sickle was already familiar with early hominins, specifically in studying the evolution of the pelvis among these hominins. Van Sickle used this knowledge when she studied the pelvic fossils at the May 2014 workshop in South Africa.

Every body part had to be divided up and studied individually. During the course of five weeks, the fossils of the unidentified creature were compared to known hominins, Van Sickle said. The research showed this was an unusual species.

“It was amazing. It was a really cool experience … Everyone is as excited about the anatomy of this species as you are so you would talk about it all day long,” Van Sickle said. “It was a phenomenal experience and not a usual one for paleoanthropology.”

Van Sickle holding cast of head of Homo naledi at the reveal of the species in South Africa
Caroline Van Sickle

Back at UW, Van Sickle recently returned from attending the unveiling of the species in South Africa two weeks ago, while Gurtov returned from London after attending the European Society of Human Evolution meetings.

Though they are both busy with school and their respective research, Gurtov and Van Sickle hope to return South Africa one day to continue research.

“Who wouldn’t want to go back?” Gurtov said.

Researchers will introduce more information about the anatomy of Homo naledi in the future.

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