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Bringing Fossils to Mind at Wits

Bringing Fossils to Mind at Wits

By Alexandra de Sousa, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Bath Spa University

I travelled to Johannesburg on a Bath Spa GALA Outreach trip to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for a week in April. I was hosted by Dr. Amélie Beaudet, a paleoanthropologist who digitally reconstructs fossils to understand the origin of the human brain.

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We visited the archival collection of fossil human relatives (hominins) at the Ditsong Museum in Pretoria. Above, Dr. Beaudet is holding the skull of SK 27, a child’s skull attributed to early Homo, the hominin genus to which living humans belong. To understand its skull shape and brain size, it is possible to manipulate digital images of it and reconstruct what it would have looked like prior to deformation.

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SK 48 belongs to the species Paranthropus robustus which is a hominin who walked on two feet but was different from Homo. It is characterized by its wide face and large jaw and teeth.

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The top of a skull, SK 54, belonged to a Paranthropus robustus child and shows two indentations at the back where it was punctured by a carnivore’s bite.

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Natural endocasts, which are fossils in the shape of a brain, are rare, but there are several in Gauteng province, for example the 2.6 million year old STS 60. It belongs to the species Australopithecus africanus which is older and shows more ancestral features than Homo and Paranthropus.

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I posed with “Mrs. Ples”, STS 5, is the most complete skull of Australopithecus africanus.

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Wits campus at dusk.

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Prof. Marion Bamford took us to “the Vault” of the Evolutionary Studies Institute.

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The first-found Australopithecus fossil was the Taung child. In 1924 this fossil uncovered Africa as our place of origin. This fossil has a partial brain, face, and jaw that all fit together. It is shiny with crystals growing where the brain would be. It has a small brain but was originally suggested by the man who described it, Wits Prof. Raymond Dart, to show humanlike features of brain and behaviour. We have very limited information about brains and behaviours from fossils, but today we are still trying to understand what Australopithecus brains were like and what they could do. The “impossible” goal to combine neuroscience and paleontology to address the origin of human cognition is the purpose of my visit. Of course, I mentioned Taung in my talk at the Archaeology Department later that afternoon!

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I am standing in front of MH1 Australopithecus sediba, a 2-million-year- old species discovered by a young boy. “Little Foot” is 3.6 million years old and the most complete skeleton of Australopithecus africanus. Dr. Beaudet and her team have been busy describing it.

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Researchers at work at ESI laboratory.

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Wits has a beautiful campus, especially when the sun shines.

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Prof Paul Manger has an impressive collection of brains from diverse species at Wits Medical School.

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I am not the first person to take a selfie in his freezer.

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There are eyes to study too.

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The brains are sliced and stained for investigation. They are a tremendous resource for understanding brain evolution and the specializations of animal species.

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We visited the Hunterian Museum where medical students can study anatomy.

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Apparently my arm is as long as an elephant tooth root.

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We visited the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of hominin fossil sites. Dr. Beaudet is standing front of a reconstruction of “Little Foot” as it was uncovered in situ.

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It is possible to explore the cave that has been made accessible at Sterkfontein on a guided tour.

Inside you can see a gate to the excavation location where Little Foot was found.

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Prof. Robert Broom led discoveries here. Tourists can rub his nose and hand for good luck. Or inspect him.

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Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was famously humbled by this landscape of fossil sites and declared “Isn’t it fantastic that there is a mind that oversaw this incredible journey so that eventually we emerged, that God should have taken so much trouble.”

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Excavations are ongoing. One of these sites, Cooper’s Cave, had baboons larger than the hominins.

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Nearby in the Cradle is Maropeng. We visited on the 25th Freedom Day, the anniversary of the first free election in South Africa. There is an exhibition of the “Long Walk to Freedom”.

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In the Maropeng visitor centre Homo naledi fossils are on display. The discoverers suggest this small brained hominin species intentionally piled its dead into the pit.

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There is a water ride to explain evolution.

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At the end of the exhibit I had the honour of placing my hands in the handprints of the distinguished Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela.

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