SFU PhD student Marina Elliott

Rising Star: SFU student uncovers history in South African cave

Marina Elliott one of 60 students on historic dig, uncovering 1,500 fossils of a new hominid species called Homo naledi.

SFU PhD student (now alumna) Marina Elliott has her name on a couple prized papers – two entries into eLife, an academic journal, describing her and her team’s discovery of a new type of hominin.

Called Homo naledi, it was discovered by Elliott and 60 other international students on a dig in South Africa’s Rising Star cave in 2013. They uncovered 1,550 fossils, believed to be over 2.5 million years old – the total was “the largest collection of a single species of hominin fossils ever discovered in Africa,” according to SFU.

Their work has just been published, two years later, in a September 10 issue of eLife. Their work was also chronicled in an episode of the PBS series Nova, which premiered last week as “Dawn of Humanity” on the network, and in an article for October’s National Geographic.

“Most academics in just about any discipline don’t even dream of a find as momentous as this,” Elliott told the Vancouver Sun‘s Bethany Lindsay. “In paleoanthropology, we’re really used to dealing with a single phalanx (finger bone) or a fragment of jaw, or a single bone in a season – never mind 1,500 fragments from something that is clearly a new species.

I remember feeling really overwhelmed, because everywhere that I looked with my headlamp, it would pick up flashes of bone.”

Elliott told the paper the fossil haul belongs to “15 individuals” of Homo naledi.

National Geographic, in publishing a fraction of video on YouTube, described the significance of the find as such: Homo naledi is “the newest member of our human family. The Homo naledi discovery adds another exciting chapter to the human evolution story by introducing an ancestor that was primitive but shared physical characteristics with modern humans.”

She is now a postdoctoral research fellow at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute. It’s the same school where the excavation’s leader, human evolution studies professor Lee Berger, teaches.

She told SFU’s Diane Luckow the dig was “among the most difficult and dangerous ever encountered in the search for human origins.”

The fossils were discovered in a “pitch-black chamber” 30 metres deep, after the team entered through an 18-centimetre-wide opening.

“Because the cave system where the bones were located was extremely difficult to access, it could be speculated that these hominins practiced a behavior previously believed to be modern: that of deliberately disposing of their dead underground,” writes National Geographic.

VIDEO: New Human Ancestor Discovered: Homo naledi

VIDEO: ‘Dawn of Humanity’ – NOVA’s Special 2015 Documentary

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