Opening Up the Realm of Anthropology: Visiting Lecture from Becca Peixotto

Photo courtesy of Anna Mozingo.

On Wednesday, November 9, PhD candidate and adjunct instructor at American University Becca Peixotto spoke at the recent “Adventures in Anthropology” lecture. In Cole Cinema, she discussed the fossils of the species Homo naledi found during her expedition to South Africa, the excitement it has generated, and the ways the new found species is changing how we think about human evolution and the value of exploration.

Peixotto was part of the original expedition that discovered the species. The expedition was named “The Rising Star” after the cave where the team found the fossils, hence the name of her lecture, “Homo naledi: The Rising Star Expedition and Open Science in Cradle of Humankind South Africa.” The expedition is unusual in the traditionally closed, guarded field of paleoanthropology—it is officially an open access paleoanthropological expedition. This means that expedition members blogged, tweeted, and video chatted to share their work with schools, teachers, and the public all over the world. The open-access ethos of Rising Star represents a radical shift toward a more collaborative and inclusive place.

For Peixotto, the expedition began with a Facebook ad placed by lead investigator Lee Berger. He was looking for archaeologists skilled in both excavation and caving. The candidates had to be small enough to fit through the narrow chute that led to the chamber. Peixotto, who jumped at the chance to be part of the expedition, said, “It was the fastest cover letter I’ve ever written.”

The expedition included senior scientists, early career researchers and students, as well as a dedicated group of volunteers. Peixotto and the five other scientists squeezed into the chute leading to the Rising Star cave in Maropeng, South Africa. Over three weeks, they worked 30 meters under the ground to excavate more than 1,550 fossil specimens, making it the single largest-ever fossil hominid find in Africa.

The fossils brought to the surface represented more than a dozen individuals of the Homo Naledi species. The specimens represented at least 15 distinct individuals, both male and female, and which ranged in age from infants to adolescents to older adults.

During the expedition, Peixotto said it was rewarding to see young scientists working together with the elders in the field, getting excited over each discovery, and being willing to share their findings with each other. “It was so fun,” she said, when describing the moment when a scientist picked up a mandible and a maxilla in the lab and realized that they fit together. She added, “We can show the world that science can be fun.”

One attendee, sophomore Kyla remarked on the lecture, saying. “There were a lot more people involved in the process than I thought; the technology was cool, I liked the 3D scanned, a lot. I thought it was interesting how fast the process went.”

Becca Peixotto instructed students at American University in the Department of Anthropology. She specializes and is interested in historic landscapes, material culture, ideas of wilderness, and public engagement with the past. Her dissertation focuses on historical archaeology and resistance of the Great Dismal Swamp.  Peixotto also actively supports open access and efforts to encourage women and girls in science.