Welcome to the family: How a UI alum helped unearth a new species of early man

In Nov. 2013, an expedition that would have a profound impact on our understanding of our human ancestry commenced at the Rising Star cave system in Gauteng Province, South Africa. Funded by the University of Witwatersrand (“Wits”) and the National Geographic Society, the excavation was part of a particularly social media-savvy engagement with science. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Wits professor Lee Berger built his team by advertising over Facebook. Andrew Howley of the National Geographic Society posted updates from the dig site to his blog, daily. And most compelling, all of the expedition’s research and results were released using an open-source model: The papers were published under a Creative Commons license, and you can even download and 3D print 86 different fossil specimens of the more than 1,550 elements (representing at least fifteen early hominid individuals) recovered on the dig.

K. Lindsay Hunter rappels into the Rising Star Cave System -- photo by Elen Feuerriegel
K. Lindsay Hunter rappels into the Rising Star Cave System — photo by Elen Feuerriegel
When a press release issued on Sep. 10, 2015 announced that Berger and his intrepid team had discovered a “new species of human relative” — Homo naledi — those working on the dig became science world celebrities almost overnight. Especially of interest to the media was the group of “Underground Astronauts” who answered Berger’s very particular and peculiar call for applicants, and ended up navigating the extremely narrow passages within the cave system to the Dinaledi Chamber, where the fossils were originally discovered. These six scientists had the advanced archaeology and paleoanthropology education, significant experience climbing, caving and excavating, and the slim build, athleticism and lack of claustrophobia necessary to make this expedition a reality.

One more thing they happen to have in common? They’re all women.

In addition to being a friend to this reporter, one of those women, K. Lindsay Hunter, is a one-time Iowa City resident and former PhD candidate in the the University of Iowa’s Anthropology program. A fixture of the Creative Corridor theatre scene for several years, Lindsay is, in the simplest terms, an adventure waiting to happen. In her cover letter to Berger when applying for the dig, she wrote, “I am open to new adventures and always have my passport handy and a bag packed.”

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: You are neck-deep in one of the most profound scientific discoveries of our lifetime. What is the strongest feeling washing over you? Is it thrilling to be part of something so big, or does the enormity of it dwarf you?

Honestly, my dearest wish at this point is to take either a long nap or a long horseback ride. I am passionate about outreach and communicating the science and excitement to classrooms, but being in the spotlight as an individual has not been something that I was prepared for, or have enjoyed. This may sound surprising, since I thoroughly enjoy the theatrical stage, but it’s much different as an actor to have a mask to hide behind.

I … actually credit the most useful skills for this expedition as coming from my time working and learning at UI’s medical school.

What was your exact area of study when you were at the University of Iowa? Can you frame it for the readers in the context of this discovery?

While studying at the University of Iowa, I was a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology. My subfield is Biological/Physical Anthropology with a specific emphasis in Paleoanthropology. When I left the program in 2011, all but dissertation, my topic was: “3-D modeling of lung volume from thoracic form: a geomorphometric baseline for the study of thoracic patterning in later Homo.”

Because my focus was on ribs, I have worked with later hominins, since it is only really with the advent of intentional burials around the time of the Neandertals that these delicate bones have been preserved with any regularity or degree of completeness. The Homo naledi find doesn’t actually preserve a lot of rib remains, which has been a great disappointment, but also indicates to me that it is unlikely that the remains were actually buried and then covered in sediment by other hominins. The deliberate disposal scenario presented in the scientific paper is consistent with this assessment.

If you found one of mankind's ancestors, you'd take a selfie, too, right? -- photo by K. Lindsay Hunter
If you found one of mankind’s ancestors, you’d take a selfie, too, right? — photo by K. Lindsay Hunter
My time analyzing museum collections across Europe and the US, as well as Israel, South Africa, and Chile, gave me a solid background in the osteological variation of fossil and modern populations, as well as impressed upon me the need for good contextual fieldwork. However, I would actually credit the most useful skills for this expedition as coming from my time working and learning at UI’s medical school. The detail and intensity of this specific excavation was much more akin to the dissections I undertook in the Gross Human Anatomy Lab under the supervision of Dr. Marc Pizzimenti and with the assistance of Dr. Simon Richardson, rather than a traditional dig. I am grateful, however, to the late Dr. Thomas Charlton, for having completed his historical archaeology field school excavating the site of Plum Grove. This gave me the basic background in documentation necessary.

Can you tell me a little bit about your decision-making process when you first saw the call for scientists? How long did it take you to know that this gig was something you truly wanted?

I saw the Facebook ad from Lee reposted on the AAPA (American Association of Physical Anthropologists) page in the wee hours of the morning on October 7, 2013, as I was pulling an all-nighter writing medical web content in a coffee house in Austin, TX. I re-shared the ad, tagging Lee, and immediately DM’ed it to my friend, Vance, who is a small and wiry skater that had just completed his PhD in paleoanthropology from Tulane. I had already left the program at UI and no longer thought of myself as being a part of the field.

However, as a historian and avid adventure reader, Lee’s call was immediately evocative of the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition ad, which read: “MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” So, when a couple of days later, Lee thanked me for sharing in my comments, I took a chance and replied that I thought I could do it. He said that my reasoning sounded good and to go ahead and send my CV on. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lee Berger's call for applicants -- image via the American Association of Physical Anthropologists
Lee Berger’s call for applicants — image via the American Association of Physical Anthropologists
Tell me about your experience in caving prior to this dig. What were the most extreme conditions you’d endured prior to the Rising Star Cave System?

I was part of what is often referred to as the “torch and sneaker brigade”—just your everyday individual who likes poking around wherever, but has no formal training in caving. I actually didn’t realize caving was a “thing.” (Oops.) The most intense conditions I had met at that time, and this holds today, come from my long experience has a horse person. Dealing with unruly and skittish horses, I have learned to channel calm from my adrenaline, putting it to the best possible use. However, despite my lack of experience, I have actually found caving incredibly soothing.

You met your now-husband, Rick, on this dig. What was his role in the discovery?

Rick was one of the two co-discoverers of Homo naledi. He and his friend Steven Tucker were pushing the cave on a Friday night (the 13th) in Sep. of 2013. They were very disappointed not to have found an extension to the system, but thought that the bones they discovered littering the Dinaledi Chamber looked somewhat like those shown to them by another caver, Pedro Boshoff. Pedro, a geologist, had been asked by Lee to keep his eyes out for hominin fossils while exploring and he had passed this word on.

"The Rising Star Expectation That Turned Into An Expedition" -- image via K. Lindsay Hunter
“The Rising Star Expectation That Turned Into An Expedition” — image via K. Lindsay Hunter

What was it like to make the decision to return permanently to South Africa? What things about home do you find yourself missing, that you never guessed you would?

I guess I have a tendency to follow the saying “leap and the net will appear.” In Africa, they say you “make a plan,” which similarly refers to figuring things out as they come, even if the initial situation seems insurmountably difficult. I had always wanted to live abroad, though since high school, I had imagined myself in the United Kingdom. I guess I mis-shot a bit. However, once you have found the person that you want to spend your life with, all of the other decisions become easier to make, if not easier to take. It has been rough at times, but I am proud of this new life that we are creating together. Right now that’s in South Africa, but it will always be together.

To tell you the truth, I was unprepared for how much I would miss Iowa and Iowa City in particular. I moved to Iowa City in 2001 from St. Louis and hate, hate, hated it. For the first several years or more, I really missed the advantages of living in a bigger city and just didn’t really find my place. All that changed in 2010 when I made some really big life changes and spent some time rediscovering myself. Through the creative community in Iowa City, especially theatre and burlesque, I found a “me” that I finally liked and friends that I loved.

There was a rather large chunk of time between the end of the dig and the formal announcement of the findings to the public. How did you manage to keep such a thrilling secret under wraps for so long?

I spent my time doing public lectures and outreach related to the expedition, so I wouldn’t say I really kept quiet. I’m really psyched about the open access aspects of the science. That has actually been larger for me than the specific preliminary conclusions. The way that the fossils are interpreted may change as more scientists enter the conversation and more material is recovered (both at this site and others around the world), but I’m just excited that we’re doing this all out in the open and with such incredible access, so that we can have as many minds working through the science as possible. I really hope to see a substantial citizen science and crowdsourcing project come out of this.

Where has your career taken you since your time on the dig, and what are your hopes for the future?

I’m thrilled to begin PhD work at the University of the Witwatersrand with Drs. Bernhard Zipfel and Amanda Esterhuysen, with an epistemological focus on the Wits paleontological collections and the dissemination of paleoanthropology. As a research associate for Sepela Field Programs, I am working on developing a project on human-wildlife conflict (specifically farmers and monkeys) in South Africa. I am also working on a collaboration with Jason Osborne, president and co-founder of Paleo Quest, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the sciences of paleontology and geology through material contributions to museum collections, field exploration, publication and the advancement of science education.

I am most excited, however, about an opportunity to focus on my writing. I am currently working on coordinating a book on the experiences of the Underground Astronauts aimed at inspiring school-age children.

The "Underground Astronauts" -- photo via K. Lindsay Hunter
The “Underground Astronauts” — photo via K. Lindsay Hunter

In recent days, some questions have been raised by other professionals in your field regarding the methodology of the Rising Star expedition. How has that resistance affected your conversations & teaching about the dig?

It actually hasn’t changed the way I approach my explanations of the methodology used in the excavation, as the methods haven’t changed, just the interpretations of a few individuals outside the expedition (who do not seem to have performed their own analyses on the open data). I think it’s important not to become defensive when faced with misunderstandings, even if they are couched in a hostile manner. I simply patiently re-explain two circumstances that allowed the expedition to proceed at a pace that is faster than what is normally seen in paleoanthropology:

One, we didn’t need to wait for grant applications. Funding was guaranteed up front by National Geographic and the University of the Witwatersrand on the strength of Lee Berger’s past research and position as an Explorer-in-Residence. Two, crowd-sourcing scientists via social media for both the excavation and the workshop enabled a large, international team to bring thousands of hours of experience upon the problem in a short space of time.

Are there other factors to consider?

In addition to this, the density of the site and the softness of the soil made excavation a relatively easy process. Remember, the majority of the material comes from a meter by meter square pit excavated to a depth of ~25 cm. Three to four weeks work in such a space with loose clay is not a speedy endeavor. We were using two shifts of 2-3 excavators. So, the person-time actually adds up to about 8 weeks, which is completely reasonable and a rather sedate pace for such a small area with such loose soil.

For those not satisfied that the process was undertaken in a careful manner, the entire excavation took place under no less than three surveillance cameras, which were monitored at all times by senior scientists above ground. Each aspect of the excavation followed meticulous protocols set in place before entering the cave and then modified as conditions warranted. The 3D surface scans and high-resolution forensic camera photos of the process used in lieu of traditional hand-mapping not only have yielded greater detail, but also allow us to “re-dig” the site virtually from any angle. In sum, any inference of impropriety or sloppiness in field methods is very easily refuted using solid evidence.

Dare to be “ridiculous”—it’s often the misfits that history looks back on with the greatest fondness and deepest respect.

What about claims to the effect that Homo naledi is not, as your team claims, a newfound species?

Implications that the species assignment is faulty are similarly easy to refute given the open publication of the data and its comparison to the forerunner in such discussions: Homo erectus. Homo erectus has a very modern body plan in most respects (unfortunately, most of this information comes from a possibly pathological subadult); the same cannot be said for Homo naledi. The differences in the postcrania, in particular, of Homo naledi are not those associated with allometry (size-related), as has been implied. Could there be misassignments and misinterpretations in how we view Homo erectus? It is possible; only more fossils will tell. But given our current understanding of this taxon, the individuals attributed to Homo naledi fall outside the range of known variation to such a degree that a new species designation is warranted.

What has your response been to your detractors? Do you feel that the benefits of the open-source model outweigh the drawbacks?

In general, each team member has approached skepticism in the same way: the papers are open access, the data is open access, the fossils are available for scientific analysis; if after carefully studying the published analyses and data, you have come to another interpretation, by all means, publish (preferably, open access), and let’s conduct this in the proper space. It is ironic that those who have denigrated Lee for using the media to spread his interpretation of the data are doing the same. The significant difference being that Lee has the published data on his side.

There is a difference between legitimate skepticism and those whose comments more properly fit into the category of “detractors.” The former is a part of the scientific process and is to be embraced. The latter devolves into ad hominem attacks, which prove nasty not only for those who must bear the slander, but for the layperson confused by what is science and what is just vicious innuendo. Certain publications have, unfortunately, succumbed to sensationalism and given space to what has been an anonymous attack that progressed from accusations of sloppiness to damage to the all-female team being a “publicity stunt.” The allegations of poor scientific interpretation regarding the taxonomy are similarly leveled at a vulnerable population within the field: Early-career researchers.

More than 1,550 elements (representing at least fifteen early hominid individuals) were recovered from the Rising Star Cave fossil site — art adapted from Dirks et al. by Jordan Sellergren
More than 1,550 elements (representing at least fifteen early hominid individuals) were recovered from the Rising Star Cave fossil site — art adapted from Dirks et al. by Jordan Sellergren

When taken as a whole—anonymous charges made without evidence—this can only be interpreted as malicious bullying. Rising Star Expedition has upset the status quo, so it is inevitable that it will have its share of detractors, but the scientific community and the public that supports it must not stand for such intimidation tactics.

An open-source, transparent model for scientific research and dissemination of results is unquestionably, the best way to proceed. That does not mean that it will be easy or that it will be without problems as we negotiate new territory. A whole host of academic traditions, particularly in paleoanthropology, are based on a closed model: grants, articles, fossil access, tenure. Incentives will have to be realigned. However, the benefits to science and to society so far outweigh these more temporary growing pains, that I believe we have a moral imperative to proceed in an open manner.

What words of hope and wisdom do you have for today’s young, budding scientists, especially young women hoping to pursue science?

I would encourage everyone, no matter their age or sex or gender or any other artificial label that society might place upon them, to write their own stories and to be their own heroes. It is always helpful to find a mentor or a model in real life or in fiction to follow, but to do something that is truly transformative and meaningful to you, you need to forge your own path. That doesn’t mean you have to go it alone, it just means becoming more creative in the people that you surround yourself with and the route that you take. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t see anyone “like you” doing the thing you want to do. Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean that it never will; it may actually highlight a great need for your talents and person. Dare to be “ridiculous” — it’s often the misfits that history looks back upon with the greatest fondness and deepest respect.

Genevieve Heinrich is a writer, an editor, a malcontent and a ne’er-do-well. Occasionally, she acts and sings.

This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 187. Featured art by Anne Marsh.

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