• Tanya-Holds-Fossil-Hand.jpg
    The author holds a cast of the hand that belonged to a now-extinct hominid species.

DeSilva presents facts, fun and hope in Newport

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NEWPORT — Although the advertisement for Dartmouth Professor Jeremy DeSilva’s free presentation last Friday promised information on two recently discovered hominids, it offered much more than straight scientific fact.

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Fifty-two people of varying ages filled the state building conference room in Newport and were treated to laughter, yarns of adventure, and perhaps the new idea for some that scientific discovery isn’t only for the official scientists.

DeSilva became connected with the NEK when North Country Union High School’s “Vermont Students to Africa” (VSTA) program was planning their 2016 program.

Active community member and businessman Gerry Hunt was passionate about the program, and after his passing in 2015, his wife, Elaine Lockwood, wanted and needed to continue his legacy. She emailed DeSilva, paleoanthropologist and professor at Dartmouth, who happens to be a lead researcher on the team studying two recently discovered hominid species.

“I never expected to get a response,” Lockwood said. “Twelve students from North Country Union High School participated in the Vermont Students to Africa-NCUHS program for 2016, which involved each of them doing a substantial research project, followed by a sixteen day trip to South Africa.”

Last spring, Professor DeSilva was kind enough to spend half a day at NCUHS with the VSTA students and also gave a presentation to 65 STEM students. He also set it up for the group to visit the secure, open-only-to-scientists, hominin lab at the University of Witwatersrand, and a two-hour private tour with the curator, Dr. Bernhard Zipfel.

The students saw the original, highly guarded fossils of the two species, Australopithecus sediba (fossils dating from close to two million years ago) and Homo naledi (fossils dating from 200,000 -300,000 years ago when our own species, Homo Sapiens, were already roaming the lands). 

On Friday, DeSilva returned to the NEK and offered a free presentation sponsored by Northeast Kingdom Homecare on behalf of VSTA.

He spoke with animation of how the first Australopithecus sediba fossil was discovered by a 9-year-old boy, about how satellite imaging showed scientists where 500 previously unknown and well-hidden caves exist in the South African expanses, and how two amateur cave spelunkers entered one of those caves and discovered a treasure trove of bones, alerted scientists, and ended up having discovered a potential burial chamber of species Home naledi.

He even spoke about how Facebook was the tool science needed to find the perfect team to excavate that cave system, and how a team of small women that came to be known as the “Underground Astronauts” responded to the Facebook post and made history by squeezing through small and often dangerous areas in the name of discovery and knowledge.

The room was silent as DeSilva showed slides of that particular cave system which required sliding through one channel only seven inches wide, and then some animated video of the results of his own research on the feet and locomotion of Homo naledi.

Attendees watched the shape of the skeleton walk along as it may have beside our Homo sapiens ancestors.

“This is just what we’re finding in two caves,” he told the audience. “Remember, there are 500 in all, so there are 498 more that no one has looked at.”

He reminded everyone in the room that the people who made the first grand discoveries at these sites were a child and two amateur spelunkers, young men who weren’t scientists at all.

The work that VSTA started with the 2016 student group isn’t over, in a way. VSTA student participants Laura Masi and Loren Searles will be working with Dr. DeSilva at Dartmouth in his lab for a week in July and attending the classes he teaches. Lockwood explained that the students need to learn human skeletal anatomy before they go because they’ll be working to identify the large number of unclassified fossils he’s brought back from the cave in South Africa.

They’ll help scan and probably print replicas of the fossils on a 3D printer.

This dispatch submitted by Tanya Sousa

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