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Meet the Local Student Who Helped Discover a New Human Species

“Underground astronauts” Marina Elliott (right) and Becca Peixotto (left) work inside the cave where fossils of H. naledi, a new species of human relative, were 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. Photograph by Garrreth Bird.

Becca Peixotto is used to being in uncomfortable situations. She’s waded through swamps, climbed through caves, and wriggled her way through tight nooks and crannies to get to excavation sites and digs.

These field experiences as an archaeologist and an American University anthropology Master’s student are what helped Peixotto get selected to work with the Rising Star Expedition, where she and five others found 1,500 human fossils, leading to the discovery of a new human species called Homo naledi.

Peixotto, now a Ph.D. candidate at AU, shares her experience excavating the caves, how studying at AU prepared her for the excursion, and what this discovery means for women in science.

How did you come across the Rising Star Expedition?

I was taking a year off between doing my Masters and getting ready to start the Ph.D. program when the Rising Star Expedition happened. It was an ad on Facebook, of all things, looking for archaeologists with a particular skill set.

Check out this announcement from Lee Berger - interesting opportunity!Dear Colleagues - I need the help of the whole...

Posted by American Association of Physical Anthropologists on Sunday, October 6, 2013

I thought that I had that skill set, so I applied—and much to my surprise—I got interviewed and selected. The project was with some really renowned paleoanthropologists at a university that is known for their paleoanthropological research, among many other things—it was really surprising.

How did AU prepare you for the type of work you were doing with the excavation team?

I did field school with Professor Dan Sayers in the Dismal Swamp at American and also volunteered a couple more years during field school, and I feel like that prepared me in a lot of ways to do the kind of work that was needed in the cave.

The Dismal Swamp is definitely an uncomfortable environment to work in. It’s a challenging environment physically and mentally—in a different way than the cave is—but to be able to demonstrate that I have good technical excavation skills to work in that type of environment was important.

And also, the program here at AU, the Masters program and of course the Ph.D. program, is quite rigorous in terms of theory and having a broad-base knowledge of anthropology as a core, field program. I focus on archaeology, but I also take classes and learn about the other fields, so having that kind of broad background and engaging in conversations and discussions with the faculty here, it gave me the confidence that I’d be able to work with the caliber of paleoanthropologists and scientists I would encounter at Rising Star.

What were your expectations going into the expedition?

All of the information before going to South Africa was really vague. There were some fossils and a hole in the ground in South Africa, and didn't I want to come and help get them out? We didn’t really know what to expect.

Even Professor Berger, when he sent us down into the cave for the first time, was expecting us to find one partial skeleton that wouldn't take too long to excavate. As it turned out, it wasn’t just one partial skeleton, it was up to a minimum of 15 individuals now—more fossils than any of us even thought were possible to find down there. None of us would have imagined we would be saying we found 1,500 fossil elements from 15 individuals down in that cave.

The team lays out fossils of H. naledi at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute. The new species of human relative was discovered by a team led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand deep inside a cave located outside Johannesburg, South Africa. The find was announced bythe University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation and published in the journal eLife. Photograph by Robert Clark/National Geographic.

And how did it feel to make that discovery?

I’m not sure that any of us really expected to encounter an entirely new species—it got quite exciting, pretty quickly!

Finding early hominid fossils is rare, in general, and certainly to find a fossil site with so many fossils is really special. It’s exciting for me to see all of these senior scientists—Professor Berger, John Hawks—and other people getting so excited about this find, as it was happening.

What was it like being down in the South African caves?

Being in the cave...it’s hard to describe.

When you’re back in the fossil chamber, if you turn off your light, it’s fully dark. There’s nothing to see if the artificial lights aren’t on. And one of the things that stood out to me was being able to look up and look around at how beautiful the cave was—it made for a pretty awesome office.

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. Photograph by John Hawks.

Based on your experience with Rising Star Expedition [which had 6 women, including Peixotto, as the primary excavators) has the landscape for women in science changed, or is it in the process of changing?

There have been women doing science for a really, really long time. Some of them we hear about, and some of them get overshadowed in the history books by the men they were working with— for all kinds of reasons. It’s something we talked about while we were there. You know, how many women paleoanthropologists are there out there? And actually, there’s a lot of them. Maybe the profile of women in science is getting raised, maybe women are being recognized more for the work that they’re doing.

Something that I think catches people’s eye about Rising Star is that there were six women who were not only doing the excavation but were actually going into the caves, and that’s not something that everyone can or would be willing to do. And, out of everybody who applied, the six who were the most qualified all happened to be women. I think that’s pretty exciting to show other girls and young women who might be interested in science that there’s a lot of different ways to be involved in science, including the more adventurous aspects of it.

Do you think that size was at all a factor in there being 6 women in the excavation team? The Facebook ad says: "the person must be skinny and preferably small"—I'm curious whether or not there's a relationship there.

Eighty percent of the applicants, out of about 60 people, were women. I think that says more about the amount of women who have the particular skill set and caving experience to do the kind of work the team needed.

It's a tricky thing, with body image and the media; and yet, body size can matter. We had to fit through that 18-centimeter gap. You know, everyone on the team, we all are different shapes, different sizes, but we all have the caving skill sets and experience needed for this type of work. There were very experienced cavers with us, who were not able to get through that tiny gap, but we had the ability to pretzel ourselves to get through those tight spaces.

What would you say to a young woman trying to get into the science field today?

I think with social media, especially, that there are a lot of women who do science and are putting themselves out there as examples. They’re making themselves available to the public as scientists and intellectuals, and you can reach out to these women and ask them, "How did you get involved in the kind of science that I want to do? I want to be a marine biologist—what path did you take to become a marine biologist?"

Finding out who do I talk to, who can be my role models, who can I read about to learn more—this is certainly something that would have been difficult for me as a young girl interested in science.

There’s also this great website called Trowel Blazers that profiles women throughout history who do science that involves a trowel—geologists, archaeologists, paleoanthropologists—and I think that website to me is really inspiring to see women all the way back to the Victorian era working in science.

What’s next?

My ultimate goal is to teach at a college or university—I really enjoy teaching and facilitating the process of students learning about the world around them, particularly from an anthropological perspective. Anthropology is a really great way to look at the world around you holistically.

All images are from the October issue of National Geographic.

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