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Struik Travel & Heritage

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Archive for the ‘Podcast’ Category

How Old is Homo Naledi? Young Scientist Tebogo Makhubela is the Man Who Will Tell the World

Field Guide to the Cradle of Human KindRedi Tlhabi recently spoke to Tebogo Makhubela, the scientist who will hopefully eventually tell the world how old Homo naledi really is.

The Soweto-born scientist is currently working on his PhD in geochronology and landscape evolution at the University of Johannesburg. Makhubela explains that geochronology is the science of determining the ages of rocks, minerals and fossils.

Makhubela, who became a member of Professor Lee Berger’s Rising Star team in 2014 when he was still doing his Master’s degree, says his interest in paleontology and geology was sparked in 2008 when Berger discovered Australopithecus sediba at the Malapa Caves.

So, how will he date these bones?

Makhubela explains that the process starts with looking at the material that is attached to the bones. Second, you look at the soil and rocks covering the fossils which can be dated using different techniques. “We are not dating the age of the fossils themselves but other events which took place in the area,” he explains.

Listen to the podcast for this fascinating conversation:


Earlier this year, Business Day conducted an in-depth interview with Berger on his life-long dedication to palaeontology, the incredible current period of exploration and the exhilarating feeling when his phone rings and the voice on the other side says, “we’ve found something”. He also speaks about the criticism that’s accompanied finding Homo naledi.

Read the article:

THE lens of the world’s palaeontological community is focused on the finds coming out of this corner of SA. Wits, the government and the tourism industry couldn’t be happier. Berger’s luck is now as fabled as Louis Leakey’s. But will his peers draw the line at tourism?

It seems Berger splits the world of palaeontology. Some find his methods, his media savvy and big claims sacrilegious. Others are swept along on the tide of his enthusiasm, buoyed by discoveries, passion and the generous sharing of his grant funding.

“‘Leakey’s luck’ is an insult,” Berger says.

“It denies the decades of hard graft that came before. Who doesn’t want to be lucky? We say, ‘gosh, I’m lucky’ all the time. As long as the people who are making the discoveries are swashbuckling adventurers, they don’t threaten the scientific establishment.”

It is the heartstopping moment, the lightning strikes, that get him out of bed in the morning.

In October this year, Berger took to Facebook to set the record straight on a number of statements in the media and on social media about the conditions around finding Homo naledi. Berger weighs in on issues such as not putting preservatives on the bones during the process of excavation and the accusation that the six excavators were chosen because they are women.

Read the post on Berger’s Facebook page:

Finally, the idea that the six primary excavators, who just happen to be women, were chosen for their sex as some sort of publicity stunt is insulting. It’s insulting to our large team of scientists, it’s insulting to these extraordinary scientists who literally risked their lives daily to recover these fossils, and it’s insulting to female scientists in general. I led the selection panel its true. There were approximately 60 qualified applicants that responded to the Ad I and others circulated on various social media platforms. A significant majority of these applicants were women and that may reflect nothing more than the changing demographics of who is choosing to do a degree in this field, I don’t know – they are who applied. We shortlisted that group to about ten candidates who we felt were the best qualified based on their skills and their skills alone, as long as they met the physical requirements the dangerous task demanded. We quite literally ranked them in order. It is a little known fact that from the shortlist, the first selection of six excavators included a male, but he, it turned out, did not actually meet the physical requirements to get into the chamber and so by that one chance the six scientists we chose were all women and all the best qualified to do the job meeting all the requirements we set out at the time. I hope that clears that issue up once and for all.

What does Homo naledi look like? Thomas Hartleb writes for News24 that Homo naledi is a mixture of ape and human and, according to Berger, “practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage”.

For a detailed description of Homo naledi’s physical attributes, read two journal articles on Nature Communications entitled: “The hand of Homo naledi” and “The foot of Homo naledi”.

Read the article:

Homo naledi’s hands and feet had features of both apes and modern humans, according to new research.

Its wrist, thumb, and palm were similar to Neanderthals and modern humans.

The fingers however were “long and remarkably curved” like those of existing apes, according to a paper titled The hand of Homo naledi, published in the journal Nature Communications on Monday.

Towards the end of September, Berger gave his first public lecture since the discovery of Homo naledi at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas in the United States.

Read the report on the lecture, written by Anna Kuchment, for The Dallas Morning News:

However old the fossils prove to be, the discovery will upend our understanding of how humans evolved, Berger said.

“When we look into this face, we’re seeing something truly startling and new that tells us we should be extremely cautious about proclaiming every fossil fragment we find the newest and best ancestor,” he said. “Homo naledi tells us there is more to be found.”

Traditionally, evolution has been seen as a linear progression from chimpish animals that walked upright, to animals with larger brains, to modern humans. But Berger thinks human history is messier.

“Homo naledi questions the uniqueness of our humanity,” he said.

Visitors of the Natural History Museum in London can also experience the wonders of Homo naledi. Three-dimensional prints of the fossils were unveiled in September and put on display in the Human Evolution gallery:

Casts of H. naledi skull, hand and jawbone fossils will be unveiled to the public at the Natural History Museum’s Science Uncovered night on Friday 25 September 2015, and will then go on display in our new Human Evolution gallery, opening later this year.

Adding to the mystery
One reason scientists are excited about H. naledi is that the fossils were found 80 metres deep within the cave system – an area that would have been in constant darkness.

Prof Stringer, who has written a comment piece in eLife accompanying the research, says ‘the deep cave location suggests that the bones may have been deposited there by other humans’.

Related links:


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Image courtesy of the Sunday Times

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Podcast: Lee Berger Introduces the Team and Project Which Would Later “Find” Homo Naledi

Field Guide to the Cradle of Human KindThe discovery of a new species of human relative, named Homo naledi, which made headlines around the world was the result of a two-year expedition led by Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University.

The archaeological mission, to explore the Rising Star caves of the Cradle of Human Kind World Heritage Site, was launched in November 2013 and named “The Rising Star Expedition”. The name that would later be given to their find paid tribute to the place where it was discovered as naledi means “star” in Sesotho.

At the expedition launch, Berger explained the importance of the project, how they assembled the team that would be exploring the caves and voiced his excitement at embarking on a mission that could change the way we think about the human species.

“It is fair to say that no discovery has ever been made like this in southern African context, and perhaps in the continent of Africa and almost anywhere in the world in this sort of context,” Berger said back then, not wanting to reveal too much at the early stages of their discovery. He also explained that the expedition would be dangerous, and that “nothing like this has ever been attempted”.

Listen to the podcast for a taste of the first stages of this historic discovery:

Read the accompanying press release, sent out on 6 November 2013, for photos of the team before they started the Rising Star Expedition:

Rising Star Expedition launched

6 November 2013

Professor Lee Berger with members of the Rising Star Expedition.An international team of researchers will in the next few days begin excavations on a new site that may contain evidence of early human fossil remains in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (COHWHS), some 40km north of Johannesburg.

Professor Lee Berger, a Research Professor in Human Evolution from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, will direct the expedition at Rising Star Cave. Berger is best known for the discovery of Australopithecus sediba at the Malapa site in the COHWHS — one of the most significant palaeoanthropological discoveries in recent times.

Berger is the author of Field Guide to the Cradle of Human Kind, a book about the very place where the fossils were found.
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There’s More to Robben Island than Imprisonment of Political Prisoners – Sibongiseni Mkhize Explains (Podcast)

Robben IslandDuring the month of September, celebrated in South Africa as Heritage Month, CapeTalk asked listeners to nominate their favourite museums to be featured on the Fabulous Finds programme.

Many people asked for the Robben Island Museum to be discussed, so on 22 September Pippa Hudson chatted to Sibongiseni Mkhize, museum CEO, to find out more about this historical site.

“The museum is about more than just one layer of history, because the imprisonment of political prisoners is but just one aspect of Robben Island,” Mkhize said, explaining that the landmass west of the coast of Cape Town tells many important narratives relating to the history of South Africans.

Robben Island: Mandela’s prison and place of inspiration by Charlene Smith also explores the island’s history, and charts the evolution of its political and social history, from mail station, place of exile, and military defence post to maximum security prison and World Heritage Site.

Listen to the podcast to find out more about the museum, their activities and future plans:


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Meet Lee Berger, the Man who Introduced the World to Homo Naledi (Video and Podcast)

Field Guide to the Cradle of Human KindLee Berger, paleoanthropologist and co-author of Field Guide to the Cradle of Human Kind, recently made history as the lead scientist in the Homo naledi project.

The discovery and investigation of the early human species is a very important moment in the field of paleoanthropology and, according to Berger, was a pleasant surprise for scientists in the field.

Berger spoke with Psychology Today about the find:

“I do believe that the field of paleoanthropology had convinced itself, as much as 15 years ago, that we had found everything—that we were not going to make major discoveries and had this story of our origins figured out.”

The new project has documented over 1500 individual bones—a small population, enough to begin talking about social life, with 15 distinct individuals represented.

Wits University shared a podcast of Berger introducing the new find last month:



Berger was also featured on News24, where he shared the story of when he first saw a Homo naledi jawbone, and why he sprang to action immediately.

Watch the video:

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“It Was a Place that Evoked Fear” – AZAPO and PAC Members Reflect on Life on Robben Island (Podcast)

Robben IslandWhat was life on Robben Island like for members of The Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)?

The Forum@eight on SAfm recently explored this question through the eyes of members of AZAPO and the PAC who spent time on the island as prisoners of apartheid.

In the first podcast, activist Dr Saths Cooper and AZAPO leader Pandelani Nefolovhodwe reflect on their experience on Robben Island.

“At the time Robben Island was this feared place where people were sent away, banished, and you never heard from them again,” Cooper says.

“It was a place that evoked fear because if it could happen to Mandela, who are you?” Cooper goes on to give a historical overview of the prison, which became a “graduate school for revolutionaries”.

“When we arrived there we found that the people who were there before us were expecting to hear more about the struggles that were outside the precinct,” Nefolovhodwe says. “We also found the kind of behaviour that we were not happy with – the behaviour of accepting the status quo.” Nefolovhodwe and his fellow inmates were not prepared to accept that “in prison you have to go along with the regulations and rules of prison”.

“We came as a different crop of people who felt that the society we lived in must be attacked at all cost – it doesn’t matter whether you are outside or inside jail. So we started raising our clenched fists inside prison.”

Listen to the podcast:

In the second interview, former general secretary of the PAC Mike Muendane says he was among the first groups of political prisoners on Robben Island that came from the Transvaal, the majority of prisoners came from the Eastern Cape. He says that there were around 1 600 prisoners from 1962 and throughout 1963. “They used to call us every night, and the figure used to be 1 600 plus one, every day plus one, and the plus one was Robert Sobukwe.”

“During 1963 it was really terrible.” Muendane remembers the torture he experienced on the island, like being buried in sand, being urinated on and being hit over and over again on the legs with a wheelbarrow. He also remembers a bright man from Daveyton, where he came from, who could build bombs using the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Listen to the podcast:


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