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Archaeologists Hannah Morris and Becca Peixotto tell the story of their efforts to uncover remains of a new species of human relatives that are over 200,000 years old in South Africa’s Rising Star Cave. Discover what it takes to get down and dirty with science and history.

Episode filmed live at the 2014 World Science Festival in New York CIty. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.

View Additional Video Information

Hannah:
Thank you guys. So I’m Hannah.

Becca:
And my name is Becca, and we are archeologists. And we have really cool jobs.

Hannah:
So before we talk about archeology, we just want to make sure everybody’s on the same page about what exactly it is. So we have some questions for you guys, and I want you guys to yell yes or no just as loud as you can when we ask you these questions. So the first question, are you ready? Yeah? Deep breath. Okay, first question is very, very important. Do archeologists study dinosaurs?

Crowd:
Yes. No.

Becca:
I heard a mixed set of answers out there. Paleontologists study dinosaurs, and there’s some similarities between archeologists and paleontologists. We both like to dig in the ground and find really old stuff. But archeology is part of a field called anthropology, which is the study of people and cultures. And archeologists look at people in the past through the things that they left behind. So do archeologists study trash?

Crowd:
Yes.

Hannah:
Great, we actually do study trash and it’s old trash, which means it’s even more cool. So we as archeologists, we often study things that people either lost or they threw away. So these can be things like an arrowhead or a piece of a ceramic vessel maybe, or it could be kind of waste food items like a corn cob. This is actually what I study. I study plant remains from archeological sites. So I’m interested in what kind of plants people were eating in the past and what they were doing that changed the vegetative landscape around them.

Hannah:
So, how many people ate a plant today? Did you guys eat your vegetables? Yeah? Okay. How many people have ever made a campfire? Yeah. Okay, well, people did all of those kinds of things in the past, too, and that’s what I’m trying to understand. So right now I work on an island off the coast of Georgia, and I’m studying a site where some of the first Europeans who came over to the new world built a Spanish mission in the 1500s. What’s really, really exciting to me and really cool to me is that when those Europeans came over here, they brought a lot of new plants with them.

Becca:
My research is on larger things. Some archeologists study really small things like seeds, like Hannah does. And others of us look at vast landscapes. I work in a place called the Great Dismal Swamp, which is on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. And we are researching a group of people called maroons, who escaped from slavery in the 17 and 1800s and went to live deep in this remote area and this really inhospitable place called the Swamp. I use chemistry and physics to look at little tiny pieces of glass that the maroons left behind on their islands and their community in order to figure out how they formed a community, what they did, how they made their lives, and generally what life was like in the Swamp so long ago.

Hannah:
All right, so Becca and I do a lot of historical archeology. Most of the time, we only work on sites that are maybe a few hundred years old, but recently we got to use our skills and training as archeologists and kind of outdoorsy people to go down to South Africa where we were excavating some early hominid remains from inside a cave. Now these were remains of early human ancestors.

Becca:
So last year, some South African cavers went into a cave that’s 30 meters underground, so that’s three times the distance from this floor to the ceiling above the stage, three times that far underneath the surface of the earth. And in there they saw a few bones laying on the ground. So Hannah and I were part of a team that went deep into this cave to excavate more fossils. And if you look out into the seats right now, there’s some spaces that are lit up maybe? Yep, there we go. These little spaces here, that’s about the area within the cave that we excavated, so not very big. And in that tiny area, we found 1500 fossils in an area the size of those lights. And the chamber itself is a couple of times larger than that, and so we think that there’s a lot more material to be recovered in there.

Hannah:
Yeah, so we have a short video that we want to show you guys when we were down in South Africa on this expedition.

Becca:
So you can see, we had a little tent city set up. There were a lot of people involved in this expedition. There were Hannah and I, and some colleagues that were excavators. There were cavers there for safety. There were specialists in fossils, lots of other scientists that came to help us out. So you can see here that we’re walking in through the cave and there’s stalactites and stalagmites. It’s a really neat cave. Sometimes things get a little tight. We’ll talk about that a little more in a minute. We used some ropes to move around. There’s Hannah there trying to figure her way through a spot.

Becca:
And we also had a control center. So we were under the ground and lots of other people couldn’t come into the cave with us. So there were cameras installed so that people could watch everything we did the whole time, moving through the cave and excavating the fossils.

Becca:
See, so this is what the fossil chamber looked like when we first arrived. Those little white specs that are on the screen, those are all fossils. So we saw the fossils and sometimes we would flag them. You’ll see that in just a second. There we go, we’re flagging the fossils. We’d collect them, record them really carefully, and then bring them up to the surface, often too much cheering because it was quite exciting. And here you can see some of the scientists doing some analysis and taking pictures of the fossils once they came out of the ground. And that’s Hannah and the rest of our excavation team.

Hannah:
All right. So maybe from that video, you guys got a little bit of an idea of what it was like to be in the cave. Getting to that final chamber where the fossils are located, it’s not easy. It’s almost like an obstacle course. So when we enter the cave, we go through these long hallways and then we have to go down some ladders. And then we get to a place called Superman’s Crawl, which is kind of a tunnel. It just looks like a little hole in the ground. And it’s called Superman’s Crawl because if your shoulders are kind of wide, you have to put one hand behind your back and then point the other one up here to get through.

Hannah:
Now, after you get through Superman’s Crawl, you’re at the base of Dragon’s Back. That’s where you saw all the people with ropes. That’s when we put on our harnesses, and we climb 20 meters up Dragon’s Back. When we get to the top of Dragon’s Back, we’re actually at the top of the shoot.

Becca:
Yes, so the shoot is only about 18 centimeters wide in one spot. So if you have, in your program, there’s the Cool Jobs flyer, the length of this flyer right here, I see a few people with it out. This length right here is 18 centimeters. It’s about seven inches. So if you take a look at that and kind of compare it to your body, figure out if you think you can fit through an 18 centimeter gap, that’s this gap right here. And if you think you can fit through that, you’d like to give it a try, we need a couple of volunteers. And our ushers are going to help us out.

Hannah:
All right, lots of excited volunteers.

Becca:
Great. So, you can go in this way. You can see if you can get out the other end.

Hannah:
All right, and at the end we have our 18 centimeters.

Becca:
It’s okay if your helmet falls off. Yeah.

Hannah:
All right. I think we have a video we can play of some other animals going through small space.

Becca:
There we go.

Hannah:
Yeah. All right. William, are you ready?

Becca:
Oops.

Hannah:
Yay, good job. Good job. Oh, almost there, almost there. Oh, get your helmet through.

Becca:
Can you get it? Nice work.

Hannah:
All right. So at this point, can we have our box out? We’re going to ask you guys to actually help us excavate because we’ve gone through Superman’s Crawl, and we’re now in the final chamber where all the fossils are located.

Becca:
All right, so come on over. So what we have here is a box to simulate excavating these fossils. Now we could just reach in and grab them, but if we did that, the fossils might break. These are all casts. They’re replicas of some fossils. So we have some of the tools that we use down in the cave with us. We have, what are these?

Speaker 4:
Paintbrushes.

Becca:
Yeah, we have paintbrushes, and then we have some wooden… What did you call it?

Speaker 5:
[Inaudible 00:08:11].

Becca:
Sure, some wooden tools here for us to use. So would you like to try a paintbrush? You want to try one of these? You want to try a paintbrush or one of those? Okay. So let’s see if you can find some fossils in here. There you go. Nice.

Hannah:
[Inaudible 00:08:27] some of them.

Becca:
Yeah. Oops, we got one.

Hannah:
Yeah.

Becca:
Awesome. All right. So we have two of them here. That’s great. We’ll leave that one for just a second. So we have two casts here. Do you think you know where this goes on your body? What bone is this?

Speaker 4:
It’s your jaw.

Becca:
It is. It’s a mandible. It’s your jaw bone. And then we have another one that’s a little trickier here. What about this? Anybody? Thigh? No. Hannah, you want to tell, you want to… Oops.

Hannah:
Any ideas for that?

Crowd:
Clavicle.

Hannah:
Clavicle.

Becca:
Clavicle, good work.

Hannah:
Who said that? Good job, exactly. That’s your collar bone.

Becca:
Yep, that’s here. Yep, and we have one more piece, and this’ll be the last one.

Crowd:
Pelvis.

Hannah:
Pelvis.

Becca:
You’re right.

Hannah:
Exactly.

Becca:
That’s right. We’re going to leave that one in there for now. Okay, cool. Can we give her volunteers a hand? Thank you very much for helping us.

Hannah:
Great job.

Becca:
So, I love my job. I love being an archeologist. There’s lots of adventure. I’m outside. I’m not in a cubicle on a computer all the time. I also like my job because I get to work with a lot of other scientists. I have a specialty in archeology. Hannah has a specialty in archeology. There are scientists that focus on bones, on rocks, on plants, on all kinds of different things. And working together with other scientists, we get to try to solve mysteries and answer questions about people whose histories aren’t written down and who otherwise we wouldn’t know anything about. And we only get to do that as a team. And I really love that about being an archeologist.

Hannah:
But I also really love my job because it’s kind of like a treasure hunt. I get to just go outside and wander around in the woods all day long. And I never know what I’m going to find from day to day.

Hannah:
So we hope that you guys have learned a little bit about archeology. We hope you’re excited about archeology because, let me tell you, there are a lot of archeological sites left in the world, and we need more people just like you guys to come help us excavate them.

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COOL JOBS: FOSSIL HUNTERS

Archaeologists Hannah Morris and Becca Peixotto tell the story of their efforts to uncover remains of a new species of human relatives that are over 200,000 years old in South Africa’s Rising Star Cave. Discover what it takes to get down and dirty with science and history.

Episode filmed live at the 2014 World Science Festival in New York CIty. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.

Transcription

Hannah:
Thank you guys. So I’m Hannah.

Becca:
And my name is Becca, and we are archeologists. And we have really cool jobs.

Hannah:
So before we talk about archeology, we just want to make sure everybody’s on the same page about what exactly it is. So we have some questions for you guys, and I want you guys to yell yes or no just as loud as you can when we ask you these questions. So the first question, are you ready? Yeah? Deep breath. Okay, first question is very, very important. Do archeologists study dinosaurs?

Crowd:
Yes. No.

Becca:
I heard a mixed set of answers out there. Paleontologists study dinosaurs, and there’s some similarities between archeologists and paleontologists. We both like to dig in the ground and find really old stuff. But archeology is part of a field called anthropology, which is the study of people and cultures. And archeologists look at people in the past through the things that they left behind. So do archeologists study trash?

Crowd:
Yes.

Hannah:
Great, we actually do study trash and it’s old trash, which means it’s even more cool. So we as archeologists, we often study things that people either lost or they threw away. So these can be things like an arrowhead or a piece of a ceramic vessel maybe, or it could be kind of waste food items like a corn cob. This is actually what I study. I study plant remains from archeological sites. So I’m interested in what kind of plants people were eating in the past and what they were doing that changed the vegetative landscape around them.

Hannah:
So, how many people ate a plant today? Did you guys eat your vegetables? Yeah? Okay. How many people have ever made a campfire? Yeah. Okay, well, people did all of those kinds of things in the past, too, and that’s what I’m trying to understand. So right now I work on an island off the coast of Georgia, and I’m studying a site where some of the first Europeans who came over to the new world built a Spanish mission in the 1500s. What’s really, really exciting to me and really cool to me is that when those Europeans came over here, they brought a lot of new plants with them.

Becca:
My research is on larger things. Some archeologists study really small things like seeds, like Hannah does. And others of us look at vast landscapes. I work in a place called the Great Dismal Swamp, which is on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. And we are researching a group of people called maroons, who escaped from slavery in the 17 and 1800s and went to live deep in this remote area and this really inhospitable place called the Swamp. I use chemistry and physics to look at little tiny pieces of glass that the maroons left behind on their islands and their community in order to figure out how they formed a community, what they did, how they made their lives, and generally what life was like in the Swamp so long ago.

Hannah:
All right, so Becca and I do a lot of historical archeology. Most of the time, we only work on sites that are maybe a few hundred years old, but recently we got to use our skills and training as archeologists and kind of outdoorsy people to go down to South Africa where we were excavating some early hominid remains from inside a cave. Now these were remains of early human ancestors.

Becca:
So last year, some South African cavers went into a cave that’s 30 meters underground, so that’s three times the distance from this floor to the ceiling above the stage, three times that far underneath the surface of the earth. And in there they saw a few bones laying on the ground. So Hannah and I were part of a team that went deep into this cave to excavate more fossils. And if you look out into the seats right now, there’s some spaces that are lit up maybe? Yep, there we go. These little spaces here, that’s about the area within the cave that we excavated, so not very big. And in that tiny area, we found 1500 fossils in an area the size of those lights. And the chamber itself is a couple of times larger than that, and so we think that there’s a lot more material to be recovered in there.

Hannah:
Yeah, so we have a short video that we want to show you guys when we were down in South Africa on this expedition.

Becca:
So you can see, we had a little tent city set up. There were a lot of people involved in this expedition. There were Hannah and I, and some colleagues that were excavators. There were cavers there for safety. There were specialists in fossils, lots of other scientists that came to help us out. So you can see here that we’re walking in through the cave and there’s stalactites and stalagmites. It’s a really neat cave. Sometimes things get a little tight. We’ll talk about that a little more in a minute. We used some ropes to move around. There’s Hannah there trying to figure her way through a spot.

Becca:
And we also had a control center. So we were under the ground and lots of other people couldn’t come into the cave with us. So there were cameras installed so that people could watch everything we did the whole time, moving through the cave and excavating the fossils.

Becca:
See, so this is what the fossil chamber looked like when we first arrived. Those little white specs that are on the screen, those are all fossils. So we saw the fossils and sometimes we would flag them. You’ll see that in just a second. There we go, we’re flagging the fossils. We’d collect them, record them really carefully, and then bring them up to the surface, often too much cheering because it was quite exciting. And here you can see some of the scientists doing some analysis and taking pictures of the fossils once they came out of the ground. And that’s Hannah and the rest of our excavation team.

Hannah:
All right. So maybe from that video, you guys got a little bit of an idea of what it was like to be in the cave. Getting to that final chamber where the fossils are located, it’s not easy. It’s almost like an obstacle course. So when we enter the cave, we go through these long hallways and then we have to go down some ladders. And then we get to a place called Superman’s Crawl, which is kind of a tunnel. It just looks like a little hole in the ground. And it’s called Superman’s Crawl because if your shoulders are kind of wide, you have to put one hand behind your back and then point the other one up here to get through.

Hannah:
Now, after you get through Superman’s Crawl, you’re at the base of Dragon’s Back. That’s where you saw all the people with ropes. That’s when we put on our harnesses, and we climb 20 meters up Dragon’s Back. When we get to the top of Dragon’s Back, we’re actually at the top of the shoot.

Becca:
Yes, so the shoot is only about 18 centimeters wide in one spot. So if you have, in your program, there’s the Cool Jobs flyer, the length of this flyer right here, I see a few people with it out. This length right here is 18 centimeters. It’s about seven inches. So if you take a look at that and kind of compare it to your body, figure out if you think you can fit through an 18 centimeter gap, that’s this gap right here. And if you think you can fit through that, you’d like to give it a try, we need a couple of volunteers. And our ushers are going to help us out.

Hannah:
All right, lots of excited volunteers.

Becca:
Great. So, you can go in this way. You can see if you can get out the other end.

Hannah:
All right, and at the end we have our 18 centimeters.

Becca:
It’s okay if your helmet falls off. Yeah.

Hannah:
All right. I think we have a video we can play of some other animals going through small space.

Becca:
There we go.

Hannah:
Yeah. All right. William, are you ready?

Becca:
Oops.

Hannah:
Yay, good job. Good job. Oh, almost there, almost there. Oh, get your helmet through.

Becca:
Can you get it? Nice work.

Hannah:
All right. So at this point, can we have our box out? We’re going to ask you guys to actually help us excavate because we’ve gone through Superman’s Crawl, and we’re now in the final chamber where all the fossils are located.

Becca:
All right, so come on over. So what we have here is a box to simulate excavating these fossils. Now we could just reach in and grab them, but if we did that, the fossils might break. These are all casts. They’re replicas of some fossils. So we have some of the tools that we use down in the cave with us. We have, what are these?

Speaker 4:
Paintbrushes.

Becca:
Yeah, we have paintbrushes, and then we have some wooden… What did you call it?

Speaker 5:
[Inaudible 00:08:11].

Becca:
Sure, some wooden tools here for us to use. So would you like to try a paintbrush? You want to try one of these? You want to try a paintbrush or one of those? Okay. So let’s see if you can find some fossils in here. There you go. Nice.

Hannah:
[Inaudible 00:08:27] some of them.

Becca:
Yeah. Oops, we got one.

Hannah:
Yeah.

Becca:
Awesome. All right. So we have two of them here. That’s great. We’ll leave that one for just a second. So we have two casts here. Do you think you know where this goes on your body? What bone is this?

Speaker 4:
It’s your jaw.

Becca:
It is. It’s a mandible. It’s your jaw bone. And then we have another one that’s a little trickier here. What about this? Anybody? Thigh? No. Hannah, you want to tell, you want to… Oops.

Hannah:
Any ideas for that?

Crowd:
Clavicle.

Hannah:
Clavicle.

Becca:
Clavicle, good work.

Hannah:
Who said that? Good job, exactly. That’s your collar bone.

Becca:
Yep, that’s here. Yep, and we have one more piece, and this’ll be the last one.

Crowd:
Pelvis.

Hannah:
Pelvis.

Becca:
You’re right.

Hannah:
Exactly.

Becca:
That’s right. We’re going to leave that one in there for now. Okay, cool. Can we give her volunteers a hand? Thank you very much for helping us.

Hannah:
Great job.

Becca:
So, I love my job. I love being an archeologist. There’s lots of adventure. I’m outside. I’m not in a cubicle on a computer all the time. I also like my job because I get to work with a lot of other scientists. I have a specialty in archeology. Hannah has a specialty in archeology. There are scientists that focus on bones, on rocks, on plants, on all kinds of different things. And working together with other scientists, we get to try to solve mysteries and answer questions about people whose histories aren’t written down and who otherwise we wouldn’t know anything about. And we only get to do that as a team. And I really love that about being an archeologist.

Hannah:
But I also really love my job because it’s kind of like a treasure hunt. I get to just go outside and wander around in the woods all day long. And I never know what I’m going to find from day to day.

Hannah:
So we hope that you guys have learned a little bit about archeology. We hope you’re excited about archeology because, let me tell you, there are a lot of archeological sites left in the world, and we need more people just like you guys to come help us excavate them.