Courtesy of John Hawks
John Hawks works in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa.
Despite being from Kansas, Dr. John Hawks had never seen storms like he experienced in South Africa.
"They had lightning like I've never seen it," says the University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropology professor. "One day, the science tent nearly blew over in the storm. We were holding the tent, five of us inside. I had the middle pole and was pushing against it as hard as I can because the wind is pushing it the other way. I remember thinking, 'Lightning is going to strike this thing.'"
The science tent was a base of operations set up by a team of researchers outside the Rising Star Cave, a site about 40 miles outside of Johannesburg. In November 2013, Hawks and a team of scientists from around the world arrived there to investigate the discovery of a chamber filled with human bones.
"We really expected when we started that we were there for one skeleton, and that was going to be super important," says Hawks, one of the excavation's lead researchers.
Hawks is one of the world's foremost scholars in human evolution, gaining popularity for the work he's done in relating human genetics to Neanderthals. He is an alumnus of Kansas State University and the University of Michigan, where he earned his Ph.D. in anthropology.
"He is very generous with his knowledge, but also expects his students to be self-motivated, and to learn independently, which is excellent training for an academic career," says Alia Gurtov, a doctoral student of Hawks, and a researcher on the Rising Star team.
Hawks has also taught a free massive open online course (or MOOC) called "Human Evolution: Past and Future" through the popular open access website Coursera. In it, students follow Hawks around the world as he films excavation sites and interviews fellow scientists.
Hawks is now posting some of those interviews on his personal blog at johnhawks.net, which he updates regularly and uses to do science outreach. "It has a lot of professionals who are readers, and people use it in their classes a lot," he says. "Through that, I've really become attentive to people who are doing a lot of outreach work."
In fact, Hawks became connected to Rising Star's lead researcher Lee Berger through his blog. Berger, discoverer of the early human ancestor Australopithecus sediba, is a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.
"Berger really believed that if you went into some new caves, you would find some new hominid fossils," Hawks says. So he enlisted the help of some local cavers who could fit into a narrow crack inaccessible to him. (Hominids are part of the primate family, including humans.)
That crack turned out to be a 12-meter-long descent into the chamber that housed the bones. Berger and Hawks put out a call for archeologists. Applicants had to be skinny, small, have caving or climbing experience, and not be claustrophobic.
Enter Alia Gurtov, one of 57 applicants.
"I'm small and strong, love hiking, and have crawled through a long lava tunnel in the pitch black voluntarily several times," Gurtov says. "I knew that the opportunity to work with Lee Berger and his team was too good to talk myself out of."
Gurtov says she is not a risk-taker by nature, but can convince herself to do what needs to be done to complete a job. It's a necessary mentality when faced with a narrow chute in a dark cave on the other side of the world.
Once she was in the chamber, however, the spelunking became less intimidating. She describes the chamber at the bottom as "quiet, peaceful, conducive to focus and meditation."
"That's how I thought of our work there, as a kind of meditation on the problem of carefully, painstakingly removing fragile bones from the ground," Gurtov says. "Hours passed in moments that way. And the bones themselves inspire. I have had the rare opportunity to hold the remains of our ancient ancestors. It never occurred to me that I would have this opportunity, so rare has it been in paleoanthropology."
"In one month, it became the most numerous site in terms of fossil hominins that had ever been discovered in South Africa," Hawks says.
The team uncovered over 1,200 bones.
Of the 206 bones in the human body, Hawks says, only about 20 are not represented in the cave. "It's an enormously complete sample in terms of representing different parts of the anatomy [of humans]," he says. "We know from the teeth that we have at least 12 individuals because we have the same tooth 12 times."
Hawks and a team of about 30 young scientists went back to Africa this past summer to analyze the fossils and compare them to what is already known, "to tell us where they fit in human evolution," he says. Though he cannot yet speak publicly about the discoveries they've made, he describes them as "tremendous."
"Evolution is the only thing that we actually all share," Hawks says. "Evolution is about genealogy fundamentally. Knowing where and when those ancestors lived informs us about what we share, what makes us human. We're connected through this history. And evolution is our description of that history. It's the thing that connects us to each other."