11 February 2016: Digging for relatives


Elen Feuerriegel with thermoplastic copy of H. naledi lower jaw.

“Sometimes I can’t believe it happened,” said Elen Feuerriegel as the 3D printer by her side chugs out a thermoplastic copy of the cranium of an ancient human.

“I’m doing something ordinary, something I do every day, and then remember that two years ago I was working 30 metres underground recovering the remains of Homo naledi, a previously unknown human species.”

Feuerriegel, a PhD student in palaeoanthropology at the Australian National University, was one of six excavators – dubbed underground astronauts by an excited media – who retrieved the bones of up to 15 individuals from a small and almost inaccessible cave.

Part of an expedition organised by Professor Lee Berger from the University of Witwatersrand to investigate the Rising Star Cave in South Africa, it was the task of the Feuerriegel and the other five excavators to reach a small and unmapped annex to the cave system called the Dinaledi Chamber.

“To get to the chamber meant worming our way through a fissure that in one place narrowed to just 18 centimetres,” Feuerriegel said. “The fissure itself was a 12-metre drop that ended in a tiny landing, followed by another four metre drop to the floor of the chamber.”

What Feuerriegel first saw there will stay with her for the rest of her life.

“It was a wonderful, exhilarating experience. It was incredible amount of fossil material in one place. It was almost impossible to move without stepping on a jaw or leg bone.

“As our eyes got used to the dimness and we became more experienced at discerning fossils in the floor sediment, new finds seemed to appear out of nowhere.”

Despite her interest in science starting as a young teenager, her appearance at the Rising Star Cave System was never a given. She reached palaeoanthropology through a route almost as torturous as the entrance to the Dinaledi Chamber.

“My first love was marine biology, particularly sharks. That somehow morphed into a fascination with volcanoes. Then my mum, an information architect, helped me put together a web page for a school project I did on human evolution.”

Feuerriegel speaks about evolution through natural selection with a focused passion.

“For me, evolution is the great leveler. We humans are as subject to evolutionary forces as other species.”

The American crime procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation also stirred in her an interest in anatomy.

She did her first degree in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Queensland. “I’d given up on the idea of palaeoanthropology until I did an intensive summer course on human evolution.”

With an honours degree in her pocket, Feuerriegel came to the ANU to do her masters, and in 2013 began her PhD in palaeoanthropology.

Later that year, Lee Berger put the call out for people with a special and unusual skill set.

“He wanted skinny palaeoanthropologists who were also experienced climbers or cavers.”

Feuerriegel, who enjoyed wall-climbing and hiking, and had previously worked in a mine shaft in Sima de las Palomas in Spain looking for the remains of Neanderthals, applied for one of the openings.

Underground astronauts

The Underground Astronauts: Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, Elen Feuerriegel, Marina Elliott, K. Lindsay Hunter, Hannah Morris. Photo: John Hawks

“Despite the specialist skill set, there were 60 applicants. I was one of six chosen.”

Within three weeks of an online interview, Feuerriegel found herself in South Africa retrieving the remains of a new human species, Homo naledi.

“We worked in two shifts, each with three excavators and two support cavers. Each shift lasted anywhere between three and six hours, depending on the task. The expedition tried to get at least two shifts down in the chamber every day, and sometimes three.

“For the first few days it could take up to an hour to get down from the surface to the chamber, but by the end of our stay there we’d reduced that to 20 minutes, giving us much more time for the real work.”

Towards the end of the work, seasonal rains raised the water table.

“There was no danger to us – the site was well above the water table – but conditions gradually got worse and surfaces more and more slippery.”

In the end, the excavators recovered the remains of 15 individuals, male and female, ranging in age from neonatal to an older female with very worn teeth.

Feuerriegel said she’s sure what the team discovered is a new species of ancient human.

“Morphologically, Homo naledi sits somewhere in the bridge between the latter Australopithecines and the early Homo, having features of both as well as some unique features all of its own. Exactly where it fits is something we don’t know yet.

“The other thing we don’t know at this point is how old the remains are. The bones we found had not yet been replaced with minerals like silica, but were still made up of hydroxylapatite, a form of calcium.”

She said if the remains proved to be between two and three million years old, H. naledi is the earliest definite example of Homo with skeletal material representing the whole body.

“If the remains are between one and two million years old, the date’s about right for a hominin of H.  naledi’s morphology.

“And if the date is less than one million years old, it means we have multiple species of hominins existing at the same time in South Africa. In that case, H. naledi’s small braincase and primitive morphology must make us seriously reconsider what it means to be a member of our own genus.”

Early reaction among some palaeoanthropologists hasn’t been all positive.

“Claims that the remains represent an early form of Homo erectus are fanciful,” Feuerriegel said. “A lot of critics have also focused on Lee’s description of the appearance of the bodies in one place as ‘ritual’.

“In this case, we aren’t suggesting anything spiritual, only that it represents repeated and deliberate behaviour.”

One of the career highlight for any palaeoanthropologist is to be one of the official ‘describers’ of a new species; thanks to her time in South Africa, Feuerriegel, at the age of 26 and still at least six months from finishing her PhD, is one of the names on the scientific paper officially naming the new species.

“I’ll also be lead author on a paper describing H. naledi’s upper limb, an area of morphology I’m particularly interested in.”

Feuerriegel said humans hold themselves on a pedestal as a species, above and apart from our ancestors.

“If there’s one thing H. naledi illustrates, it’s that the characteristics and behaviours we believe make us unique are not so unique after all.”

22 October 2015: Waiting for Harriette


Maggie Sutcliffe Photo: Rachel Tokley

“When Rachel and I got together, the issue of having kids came up occasionally. It would go like ‘Would you like to have kids?’, ‘One day. What about you?’, ‘One day, yeah’.”

Maggie Sutcliffe is sitting in her kitchen in the leafy Canberra suburb of Hackett, trying to recall exactly how the vague idea of becoming parents solidified into something more certain.

“We’d been together for just over two years. We were in a good space, and committed to being together. We were both getting older, which was a factor, and the timing seemed right.”

Maggie says she always thought she would one day carry a baby. “Rachel was less sure about that, and she is older than me, so once we decided to get things in motion, the decision for me to become pregnant seemed right and natural.”

She says it’s wrong to think that people in a same-sex relationship wouldn’t want children.

“My sexuality and my desire to have a child are two different things. After all, there are heterosexuals who don’t want to have children.

“If you want to make it happen you’ll make it happen.”

Maggie says she and her partner talked long and hard about raising a child with two mothers.

“We didn’t only talk about what it would be like as same-sex parents with a child, but what it would be like for the child as well.”

As well, they had the example of many friends is a same-sex relationship with children ranging in age from toddlers to 14 years-old. “And all those children are healthy, happy and well-adjusted. So in the end that aspect of the decision didn’t concern us greatly. Having said that, we realised there are going to be challenges. But there are always challenges having children.”

Having made the choice to start a family, Maggie and her partner then had to decide how to go about it.

“We figured we had three options. To ask someone we knew to be the donor, to organise a sperm donor online in Australia, or to go to a fertility clinic. In the end, we made the choice to go to the Canberra Fertility Centre, where we chose an anonymous donor from America because the availability of sperm from Australia is limited.”

Maggie says that although they did not know the donor’s name, they had information about his education, medical history, background and – as far as we could find out from the material at hand – what sort of a person he was.

“The whole process was kind of surreal, a mix of online shopping and online dating. At first we felt awkward about the whole picking-a-donor thing, but it had its humorous side.”

Initially they tried artificial insemination, but without success after five attempts.

“We then decided on IVF. Seven eggs were taken, six of which became viable. One three-day embryo was implanted, but that attempt failed as well. The embryos were grown to five-days, and one survived. That one was implanted.”

It was at this point that Maggie and her partner decided that if the last embryo didn’t work out, they would go on a long holiday to France and embark on a different adventure rather than having children.

“IVF is a very ‘medical’ way to have a baby. It was all a bit full-on.  But the end result of our own child would be worth all the medical intervention.”

As it turned out, it was the last embryo that did the trick.

“When we realised it had probably taken, we were hopeful without being carried away about it. We knew from past experience that disappointment was never far off, and it was hard to take. We went away for a short break to distract ourselves.

“The first real sign was one morning when I couldn’t stand the taste of coffee. I love coffee! It was hard not reading something into that.”

The first blood test was positive.

“To make sure, though, we needed a second blood test. All the waiting was nerve-wracking. But the second blood test confirmed I was pregnant. The embryo was 14 days old.”

She says it all became very real when she had the seven-week scan and a heartbeat was detected.

“We were very excited.

“We also made the decision we didn’t want to know the embryo’s sex, but at the 12-week scan the technician asked us if we wanted to know and we just said ‘Yes’. She said she thought it might be a girl, and that was confirmed at the 20-week scan.”

Except for the morning sickness, life returned to a kind of weird normality.

“We were no longer going through the whole medicalized fertility process of blood tests, insemination and waiting, waiting, waiting. We had time and space to ourselves. The second trimester was great, a breeze, but the whole thing still seemed slightly unreal.

“Then with the third trimester it all really hit home. This is actually happening! There is a small person inside me.”

Maggie says reaction to the news she was pregnant was overwhelmingly positive.

“Looking back on it now, from the initial decision through to choosing a donor and then going through AI and IVF, it’s all a bit of a blur. The pregnancy itself has overtaken everything that came before. Now even the pregnancy is taking no time at all. It’s been my focus, what my life has been about, for 37 weeks.”

When asked if she would go through the whole thing again, Maggie says they would like to have more than one child, but will have to wait and see how things play out first time around before making a decision.

“If we restart the process, I’ll be over 40, so that will make us think harder about it. And if we could we’d like to use the same donor again.”

She and her partner have already chosen the child’s name.

“For a while I was convinced it was going to be a boy, and we’d settled on the name Huon. But she is going to be called Harriette. Harrie for short. Or maybe just Harrie … ”

Maggie says they will learn to deal with things as they come.

“We’re in a loving same-sex relationship. We’re both going to be mothers. That does influence where we want to live, where we want Harrie to go to school, the community in which we want her to grow up. They are all factors that will help decide what we do in the future.

“We’re looking forward to Harrie being with us. We can’t wait!”

14 September 2015: Taking ‘the strangers case’

Thomas More

Sir Thomas More. Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1527.

Tragically, when it comes to human behaviour there is little new under the sun. Despite all the evidence that immigration and the settling of refugees is good for a country’s soul, not to mention its economy, many people give in to bigotry and fear and make victims of those who are already desperate and vulnerable.

In 1517, young male apprentices rioted against foreigners living in London. Ultimately, large numbers of the rioters were arrested, and though most were pardoned a handful were executed.

The riot started on the evening of 30 April and carried over to the early hours of the next day. The event has since been known as Evil May Day or Ill May Day.

One of those who attempted to forestall any violence was Thomas More, who confronted the rioters and urged them to return to their homes.

Two playwrights, Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, celebrated this act of courage in their play Sir Thomas More, written sometime in the early 1590s.

The play was revised by several writers, and it is now generally accepted that one of those was William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare rewrote Moore’s speech to the rioters when he implores them to take ‘the strangers case’, to imagine what it must be like to be a refugee facing at best a lack of compassion and at worst outright hostility.

“What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.”

In 2015 there are many people – and some countries – who do indeed take on ‘the strangers case’, and open their hearts and homes to those fleeing terror and persecution.

But not all of us, and almost none of us all of  the time.

[The extract is taken from the text put up at Project Gutenberg.]