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When Keneiloe Molopyane was seven years old, she saw comic book character Tintin’s adventures around the world and knew that she wanted to be an explorer.
Flash forward a couple of decades, and Molopyane’s studies in biological anthropology have opened up unimaginable opportunities to investigate South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind, one of the world’s most important fossil sites.
Molopyane tells SciDev.Net how about her experiences in underground excavation, as well as how she is using her superhero persona, Bones, to inspire young people.
You’re a fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey. This is a fascinating title. What is the deep human journey? And what are you exploring?
The deep human journey, I like to think of it as the new buzzword for evolution. ‘Evolution’ is quite limited … If we say ‘the deep human journey’, you get a better idea of what it is that we’re doing. We’re looking at our human lineage and ancient ancestors, and trying to put the puzzle pieces together or add more puzzle pieces to this giant picture that is forming, because the way that we understand evolution has changed. When I was in school, it was taught in a very linear fashion. We’ve realised that it’s not linear, there are many branches or streams that protrude from it.
What are the most exciting digs and underwater explorations that you’ve been involved with? Are you excavating, diving or exploring right now?
I started excavating my first year of university. This was in 2005. And that is an excavation that I will probably never forget, because that reaffirmed my passion for the subject field. I’ve been underwater diving, that was a great project — the African Slave Wrecks Project, working with the Smithsonian institute and George Washington University, as well as Iziko Museums of South Africa. [We were] looking for a particular shipwreck, telling the story of the slaves that died when the ship crashed.
The latest adventure was being part of the Rising Star team at the Cradle of Humankind. I joined in 2018 as a junior underground astronaut, so crawling around in caves, tight spaces, getting stuck, in the dark. That was super fun — it scares a lot of people, but I found it to be quite incredible. So, 2022 is probably going to be very busy, opening up maybe two additional sites and really getting down to exploring and excavating.
How can this new understanding about the past be used to make life better in the present and in the future?
We all learn from our mistakes, right? This is one of the nice things about studying history, archaeology and paleoanthropology, you have this mosaic of puzzle pieces that you put together. You then tend to see some of the blunders that have occurred in terms of how we treat the environment, how we use it, and also how science is conducted. There are lessons in the historical record that we can learn from that will make better science. And that’s what we’re working towards.
You’re a member of the SuperScientists squad, which was developed to inspire young people in Africa and to help them see themselves in the faces and life stories of scientists working today. How did you become a SuperScientist?
I knew about SuperScientists for a couple of months before I was approached by [the project founder] Justin Yarrow. I was just captivated by the artwork and the idea that a scientist could be a superhero. I came up with Bones. She looks very much like me, she has signature red hair, which I wear as well — that is homage to our underwater adventures, you know, the Little Mermaid, Ariel, with the red hair. And Bones also has a trowel on her chest. And even the suit that she wears… that is a similar suit to what I wear when I’m working underground. And I’m holding a skull of Homo naledi… because that’s how I got into paleoanthropology.
Did you have a science superhero growing up?
I didn’t have any science role models growing up, mostly because I didn’t want to be a scientist. I thought scientists were very boring. And they were often white males as well. It’s very interesting that I became a scientist because still to this day, I don’t really see myself as a scientist. That’s why SuperScientists works — we’re changing the face of what a scientist looks like. My family has been quite supportive. They went on this journey with me, so they’re kind of like my role models as well, because they learned the science with me at the same time, and kept me going.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.