On Monday, Nov. 12, University of Dallas students accompanied by Biology Professors Dr. Deanna Soper, Dr. Drew Steneson and Psychology Professor Dr. Scott Churchill visited the Perot Museum to receive a guided tour from Director of the Center for the Exploration of the Human Journey Dr. Becca Peixotto, a paleoanthropologist that brought rare hominid fossils to Dallas.
The unique opportunity allowed the UD group to see fossils that will most likely only be exhibited in Dallas until they return to South Africa, where they were discovered. The fossil skeletons Homo naledi “Neo” and Australopithecus sediba “Karabo” were discovered in cave systems in 2013 and 2008, respectively.
According to Peixotto, Neo lived around 300,00 years ago, while Karabo lived 1.97 million years ago, and they are the remains of our fossilized relatives.
“We used to think of human evolution in terms of a ladder or there is that terrible t-shirt that shows a chimpanzee and then … all of a sudden you have Homer Simpson on a computer,” said Peixotto. “That’s not how we understand human evolution anymore.”
Peixotto explained that the popular representation of human evolution, the ‘March of Progress,’ was not entirely accepted by the scientific community. Instead, Peixotto suggested that human evolution occurred in a braided stream where species interbred.
The UD group followed Peixotto through the exhibit where they learned that the work of a paleontologist can challenge our thought of what it means to be human.
“We can tell from the taphonomy, so what’s happened to the bones since the animal died, and from lots of geologic clues, that [the fossils] weren’t washed in with a flood, they weren’t drug in by carnivores, they didn’t all fall in at the same time from a hole in the ceiling,” said Peixotto. “Our hypothesis is that Homo naledi was deliberately depositing the dead in this cave system … We see evidence of behavior that suggests that Homo naledi was able to recognize self and other, and when other wasn’t anymore.”
Peixotto said that purposeful burial rituals were one of the aspects considered to be unique human activities, such as tool usage and language, both of which have been observed in other species.
Sophomore physics major David Foust found the experience to be enjoyable and enlightening to the human experience.
“Knowing that they had burial rituals was fascinating to me,” said Foust. “I presumed that they had conscious experience, which seems to have been confirmed [through the evidence]. I was awestruck … that they used the caves to bury their dead.”