Teaching Naledi: Two Years Getting to Know about and Share Our Newly Discovered Relative

In my last post, I shared with you the first part of my social media journey that brought me from utilizing YouTube back in 2007 to becoming connected with a fantastic science/adventure story that was the discovery of more than 1,500 human-like fossils in a South African cave called Rising Star.

My students and I followed the s tory closely, which resulted in my creating a series of daily video reviews of activity at the Rising Star Expedition. This, in turn, led to an invitation to visit Dr. Lee Berger in July 2015. The invitation included a chance to interview each of the “Underground Astronauts”, as well as members of the Hill Exploration team and Berger himself. I was given unprecedented access to the as-yet-unpublished information that we all knew was a big deal.

After my two weeks in South Africa, I returned to Dallas sworn to secrecy. As a teacher who compulsively SHARES information, I found it torturous to keep the secret until September 10th—the date of the official announcement.

Lee Berger with Homo naledi. cc Wits University (3)
Lee Berger gets a hold of Homo naledi. Photo courtesy Wits University

I had eagerly prepared my middle-school students for this big news and was not worried about the fact that if I wanted to see it streamed live online I would have to be awake at 3:00 a.m. Dallas time. This would also mark the chance for me to FINALLY let the world see my half-hour interview with Dr. Berger & Dr. John Hawks—which had all the details I had kept bottled up since my return in July.

I watched the official announcement streamed live from the University of the Witwatersrand with much the same excitement I imagine accompanied the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. As Lee Berger’s voice announced “a new species of human relative, Homo naledi” I made my interviews public and was stunned to see every news organization immediately had lead stories about Homo naledi. This was indeed a BIG DEAL!

I was thrilled that this fossil discovery which I thought was important was also being treated as important by the international mainstream press corps. But what followed was something that I did not anticipate in the least. If you recall, my initial connection with Dr. Berger was to have him play a small role in helping my students better understand his discovery of Australopithecus sediba. That was all I was hoping for back in that August evening in 2012.

I was unaware that in reaching out to Berger, I had done something rare for teachers, especially middle-school teachers: I had networked beyond my close circle of colleagues. The fact that I had reached out to a scientist (admittedly one who was now in the spotlight) was seen as oddly newsworthy. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, I was featured in the Dallas Morning News, Scientific American’s blog, the National Center for Science Education, and had a surprise visit from our local ABC news crew on a Friday afternoon.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that simply doing what was good for my students would have resulted in such coverage. Indeed, I was told on multiple occasions that I was “brave” for having reached out to Dr. Berger in the first place.

The more I thought about this situation, the more it bothered me that I was getting more attention than I felt was deserved for networking in a way that is considered the norm in most every profession outside of teaching.

The more I thought about this situation, the more it bothered me that I was getting more attention than I felt was deserved for networking in a way that is considered the norm in most every profession outside of teaching. I soon realized that such networking among teachers was indeed rare due to the fact that prior to internet availability most teachers rarely had the time nor the professional connections to network beyond their school buildings.

As I mentioned in my first NatGeoEd blog post, there are many teachers now successfully using social media to expand their personal learning networks—and I consider myself an eager proponent of this trend. We must encourage teachers in all disciplines to reach out to other teachers as well as experts in their fields so that students can benefit by gaining a wider and more realistic view of the world and how it works.

In the midst of the media excitement of the Homo naledi announcement, my students and I had the great good fortune to have Dr. Berger and three of the “Underground Astronauts” (Becca Peixotto, Hannah Morris, and Marina Elliott) visit Dallas to speak at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. They were generous enough to spend time with my students and Dr. Berger stunned all of us when he presented me with casts of Homo naledi’s hand, foot and skull. It was one of the few times in my teaching career I have been publically speechless!

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Dr. Berger presenting me with one of the first Homo naledi casts. Photo courtesy David Carden

As time moved on and things naturally quieted down, I settled into a routine of talking about the “Homo naledi Experience” to a range of interested groups. The story of the Homo naledi discovery is so engaging that all ages like hearing about it, and I have found myself educating interested folks from age 5 to 105 about this modern-day science/adventure story.

Much to my excitement, there is no end in sight! Thanks to support from the Dallas-based Lyda Hill Foundation, The Rising Star Cave system has been purchased and the fossil site will remain protected in perpetuity. In addition, the Hill Foundation sponsors the team that explores the Cradle of Humankind looking for the next great hominin discovery.

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Sharing the Homo naledi story! Photo courtesy Tanya Donaghey

Such support resulted in the May 2017 announcement of a second fossil chamber named Lesedi (“Light”) within the Rising Star cave system. The team announced the discovery of fossils of three individual specimens of Homo naledi in this area, including a very complete skeleton named “Neo” (Meaning “gift”) and fossils from an infant.

The skeleton of “Neo” from the Lesedi Chamber of Rising Star. Photo courtesy Wits University/John Hawks

The most recent chapter of the story occurred last month, as most of the Rising Star team gathered again to stage a three-week excavation in both the Dinaledi and Lesedi chambers in hopes of testing hypotheses about how Homo naledi came to rest in the depths of Rising Star. This expedition was remarkable because the team managed to install Wi-Fi throughout the cave, which made it possible to host Google Hangouts and Facebook Live sessions with other scientists as well as students the world over. National Geographic Education’s “Explorer Classroom” hosted sessions each week that connected schools in the United States, Canada, Germany, and South Africa with the scientists working live in the Rising Star cave.

Indeed, when Berger’s team virtually visited with our 300+ middle schoolers, excavator Elen Feuerriegel discovered a rib fragment just as one of my students was asking how common it was to find fossils in the Dinaledi Chamber. Talk about a moment that those students will not forget! When I tweeted about it, I referred to it as a “#Scicomm Home Run” Here’s a short video of our 30-minute session with the Homo naledi team.

Berger and his team wrapped up their productive few weeks in the Rising Star cave at the end of September. After they had time to clean up and get reacquainted with family, they were on the road to Dallas courtesy of the Lyda Hill Foundation to share their experiences with local schools as well as the public in a lecture at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

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Dr. Berger, Lyda Hill, and Underground Astronauts smile with students and faculty of the Lamplighter School. Photo courtesy John S. Mead

Just yesterday, I had the privilege to accompany Berger and the Underground Astronauts to three schools as part of a full day schedule that saw them present to more than 2,000 K-12 students live over five separate lectures. As a teacher, it pleased me immensely to see this team relate both the adventure and science of the Homo naledi story to a wide range of ages in a way that left each audience eager for more. And more is certainly to come as Berger was crystal-clear that the work of the Hill Exploration Team has already paid dividends in new hominin discoveries that the world will hear about over the coming year or two.

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A “Science Selfie”—Homo naledi team members pose with upper school students of the Hockaday School. Photo courtesy John S. Mead

In another #Scicomm home run that will keep students engaged in this ongoing work, Dr. Berger announced that his team and The Hill Foundation are giving fossil casts of the “Neo” skeleton to each of the schools they visited. When new pieces of Neo are recovered, those pieces will be also be cast and sent to the schools to allow students and teachers to add to their existing collection. This is an unprecedented act of generosity that will benefit students for decades to come! As I write this, only a few hours after hearing of this gift, I have a feeling of deep gratitude for my future students that words simply cannot adequately convey.

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Dr. Berger signs books for eager St. Mark’s middle schoolers after his talk. Photo courtesy John S. Mead

From that first Facebook request in 2012 to today, social media has made possible opportunities that were unthinkable for me and my students. In upcoming posts, I’ll share more of the scientific details of Homo naledi as well as how I see this discovery impacting how we approach the teaching of human origins at the K-12 level. Stay tuned!

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