The UNH Anthropology Club sponsored a weekday screening of “Dawn of Humanity,” a NOVA PBS and National Geographic documentary about an astounding discovery made by a special archeological team deep in a South African cave. Shown in MUB Theater I at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 26, the film detailed the team’s uncovering of over 1,500 ancient human bones.
The excavation of the “almost inaccessible chamber,” according to the film’s description, began in 2013 and lasted until September 2015. Thousands of bones were collected from the Rising Star Cave in South Africa over the excavation’s course. Led by University of Witwatersand professor and paleontologist Lee Berger, the archeological team was made up of six women fitting special criteria: “small expert paleoanthropologists.” Accompanying the team was a party of paleoarchaeologists that included University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropology professor Dr. John D. Hawks.
Following the screening, UNH hosted a public lecture on “Probing Human Ancestry with Ancient DNA,” delivered by Dr. Hawks in room four of Horton Hall on Wednesday, April 27 from 3:10-4 p.m. Dr. Hawks will also be holding a meet and greet session hosted by the anthropology department on Thursday, April 28 from 9-9:40 a.m. in room G16 of Huddleston Hall. Afterwards, Dr. Hawks will lecture on Homo naledi, the new species discovered by the Rising Star Cave excavation team. Faculty and students are welcome and encouraged to attend.
“Dawn of Humanity,” gives an inside look at what, and who, bridged the gap between primate and Homo genus species. Cave hunters Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter originally discovered the maze-like South African cave, which is just west of Johannesburg, by accident. Through a 7-inch wide chute, Tucker and Hunter found a littering of bones and fossils on the floor of the cave’s deepest chamber, the “Chamber of Stars.” When they realized the immensity of their discovery, Tucker and Hunter got in touch with their supervisor, paleontologist Pedro Boshoff. Boshoff saw the pictures of the bones and notified Berger, who embarked on a subsequent hunt for the world’s most slender expert paleoanthropologists. Within 10 days Berger had gathered 57 qualified applicants, of which he ultimately selected six. With Simon Fraser University alumna Marina Elliot leading the “underground astronauts,” the team unearthed what had been hidden from daylight for potentially millions of years. Berger watched via a livestream from the team’s helmet cameras.
According to the paleoanthropologists, an excavator is lucky to find more than a few teeth and bone fragments. When Berger and Bashoff saw what lay before the excavators, they were astounded. “There aren’t just hundreds of bones, there are thousands of bones,” said Berger. They found an archaeological gold mine.
After a quick process of elimination, they soon discovered that the bones were remains of a new Hominid species. With the hands, feet, teeth and jawbones of Homo genus, but a primate’s trunk and chest, and only a slightly larger brain, they called this new species Homo naledi.
Upon closer examination, they started piecing together this anomaly. Typically, bones and fossils are found with other animals’ remains. The bones collected in this hidden chamber, however, were almost exclusively Homo naledi, with the exception of one owl skeleton. This led to the controversial theory that the cave is an ancient burial ground, which would indicate that in these primitive stages, species were beginning to bridge the gap to humanity.
This research has answered many questions, but created so many more ––it is completely reshaping how paleoarchaeologists approach excavations.
Senior English major and Anthropology Club member Douglas Rodoski, commented on the film’s significance. “‘Dawn of Humanity’ emphasized the teamwork and painstaking detail necessary in archaeology. It’s fascinating that a new species was discovered in what is considered the ‘Cradle of Civilization.’ It motivates students to pursue not just archaeology, but all fields of anthropology,” he said.
Freshman anthropology major Caroline Aubry was also impressed with the film.“This documentary opened my eyes to how much is yet to be discovered, and there is so much even I [have] yet to learn,” she said.
Aubry added that she is especially interested in how this has provided new insight into human ancestry; that we didn’t come from just one primate, but perhaps a whole melting pot of species.