Anthropology Students Make a Major Fossil Discovery in South Africa

“It shows the importance of being out in the field.” —Julia Cohen ’18

It’s not every day that a couple of college students discover a fossilized piece of bone likely to have come from a 2-million-year-old ancestor. But that’s what Keira Byno ’19, Julia Cohen ’18, and Kathleen Li ’17 did during a three-week field trip to South Africa for their anthropology class, “Experiencing Human Origins and Evolution.”  

Excavating at a UNESCO World Heritage site at Malapa, northwest of Johannesburg, with 12 other Dartmouth anthropology students, Associate Professor Jeremy DeSilva, and Professor Nathaniel Dominy, the novice anthropologists were expecting to learn a lot. They were not expecting to make an important contribution to science.

“Out of every fossil that’s found, there’s a one-in-250,000 chance that it’s early human. The fact that we found a fossil is amazing. But finding this fossil, out of sheer luck, was incredibly exciting,” says Cohen.

Experts believe that what Cohen, Byno, and Li uncovered at the site known as the “Cradle of Humankind” are fossilized fragments of the pelvis of Australopithecus sediba, whose features—upright walking, for example—mark it as a precursor of humans.

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