Dr Keneiloe Molopyane: South Africa’s underground astronaut
The National Geographic Society has named her among its 15 Emerging Explorers for 2021. The 34-year-old South African is also the first post-doctoral research fellow at Wits University’s Centre for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey. Dr Keneiloe Molopyane chats to us about her life, her work and her hopes.
It just takes a minute during our conversation to realise that Dr Keneiloe Molopyane’s enthusiasm — indeed, her passion — for her research work blazes through our online link-up. Even though 2021 is only half over, there is much to talk about what has happened lately in this young paleoarchaeologist’s life.
Actually, the precise discipline Molopyane is part of seems to be evolving into a new, blended, broader field — and she seems an excellent example of this trend.
Still early in her career, she has dealt with the detailed anatomical evaluations of the injuries suffered by people whose remains make up a vast collection; she has carried out some dangerous, hands-on marine archaeology; and has now joined ongoing explorations at the Cradle of Humankind.
What exactly should we call her discipline? Is she a paleoarchaeologist, a paleoanthropologist, a biological-archaeologist, a bio-anthropologist, or something else? Perhaps these terms are increasingly arbitrary, and the very diversity of her work is the correct path for future explorations of our human origins.
And, of course, genetics too is becoming an ever more vital part of the mix, providing amazing information on the samples researchers uncover in the field. Regardless of what her discipline is labelled, it is a delight to talk with her about her work and her hopes for the future.
The first half of 2021 has already been eventful for Molopyane. Earlier in the year, she successfully defended her doctoral dissertation on the insights to be gained from a close study of the traumatic injuries sustained by early residents in Johannesburg, as observed in the vast anatomical collections at the University of the Witwatersrand.
This research had been gleaned from a collection at Wits University comprising the remains of thousands of the city’s early residents. Her degree will be conferred formally in July.
And if the successful completion of her PhD is not personal triumph enough, she has also just been named by the National Geographic Society (that venerable research and exploration institution in Washington, DC) as one of a small, select group of Emerging Explorers for 2021. Not surprisingly, colleagues like Prof Lee Berger have been singing her praises as a researcher fully worthy of this accolade.
Berger is one of South Africa’s leading paleoanthropologists, cutting a tireless figure at the centre of discoveries at the Cradle of Humankind for well over a decade.
Molopyane’s interest in archaeology (and thus, by a winding road, on to paleoanthropology and the ongoing discoveries in the Dinaledi chamber of the Rising Star cave system at the Cradle of Humankind) began early in life.
As a seven-year-old child, she had been watching a Tintin cartoon on television with her mother and saw someone who travelled the world, making discoveries. Something clicked for her at that moment — that’s when she decided what she wanted to do in life, even if she could not yet pronounce the word “archaeologist”.
There must be something magical about being seven and encountering the wonders of archaeology and palaeontology. This writer was similarly captured, also as a seven-year-old, when he was given a book written by swashbuckling palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews (the model for Indiana Jones), about his expedition to discover the remains of human ancestors in the sandstone deposits of the Flaming Cliffs of East Asia’s Gobi Desert.
Andrews never found early hominins, but he did uncover a whole roster of new species of dinosaur fossils — including the first known dinosaur eggs. All that in addition to his encounters with Mongolian bandits and Chinese warlords. (In my office, among the most treasured possessions, even now, is a 3D print of a Homo naledi skull and a perfectly wrought cast of the Taung Child skull as reminders of our fascination with this work.) But unlike Keneiloe Molopyane, while I went on to other pursuits, she followed her dream into adulthood. The word “envy” flashes red at this point in our conversation.
Molopyane is a daughter of the East Rand town of Benoni (go ahead, name some other famous Benoni alumni — we’ve got Charlize Theron and Vic Toweel, Brian Mitchell, Monaco’s Princess Charlene, Bryan Habana and Oliver Tambo — all seem to have lived there for some part of their lives).
Molopyane, however, seems certain to become the town’s most illustrious, native-born scientist and, increasingly, an internationally prominent researcher as well. And the honour of being singled out by National Geographic will not hurt her global standing in the least.
For her academic preparation, she did her first degree at the University of Pretoria. Then it was on to York University in Britain for a master’s degree and back to South Africa for her PhD at Wits.
While conducting her research among those thousands of bones, she says she consumed vast quantities of coffee. “I could have had an IV line of coffee attached to my arm and still be able to function… that’s how much caffeine I had running through my system. But always remember to drink water — it’s much better for your skin,” she advises.
About her PhD research, she explains it dealt with the question of skeletal trauma. “I analysed approximately 1,104 individual and complete skeletons from the cadaveric collection at the School of Anatomical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“The skeletons were those of both men and women, young and old, representing the 20th-century population of Johannesburg. (They obviously represented Johannesburg’s poorer inhabitants. The bones of the rich don’t end up in such collections, after all.)
“My research primarily involved looking for indications of broken and healed bone fractures and incorporating digitised mapping to reveal any patterns in the data.
“By studying these broken bones, I set out to determine if it was possible to reconstruct and understand how these individuals had suffered their injuries. This is very similar to what forensic anthropologists do when working on cases where there is no flesh, only bare bones.”
During those early years in a rough mining city, life was cheap and injuries were likely to have been numerous, especially among the poorer working people.
Reflecting on her research now, she says she might have been a bit naive in thinking she could see the measurable results of apartheid in the tales told by the damaged bones. It would be hard to differentiate between black and white people in terms of their injuries since the bones in the collection obviously all came from poor people — both black and white. As a result, she muses, the history of Johannesburg’s people has not yet been told in full.
As she moved up the academic ladder, she said her family initially questioned why she wasn’t studying to become a medical doctor. However, the research road called out more insistently. In the end, her family supported her in her career choices.
Asked who her earlier role models were, she said she didn’t really have any “because there was no one who looked like me”. Still, her family and her teachers fed her curiosity and helped her persevere.
After completing her PhD research, but before finishing the final writing up of it, she signed on to join an archaeological dig near Cape Town. But this was not just any old archaeological exploration.
Instead, it was on the seabed in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean near the swanky coastal suburb of Clifton. The task was to excavate artefacts from a ship that had been transporting slaves from Mozambique to the Spanish or Portuguese colonies of the New World. In 1798, the ship had foundered and sunk in one of those storms the Cape is so famous for.
Now, more than 220 years later, an international expedition, bringing together resources from the American Smithsonian Institution and South Africa’s Iziko Museums, was prising secrets from a wrecked ship that had been engaged in the trade in human beings. The explorers were bringing to the surface fragments of metal from the chains that bound the slaves, along with many other precious relics from the ship.
Initially hindering Molopyane, however, was the fact that the only way to properly participate was to be a skilled scuba diver. So she learnt how to swim with tanks and jumped feet first into the work, so to speak.
She said the challenge was more than just swimming to the seabed and excavating the artefacts. The waters there can be very murky because the powerful tides and choppy seas often churn up the sand on the ocean floor. Sometimes, particularly strong waves would wash her back on to the shore (she is rather slender — although that proved to be helpful later on).
But these adventures were not the end of new challenges. Next, she applied to an online recruitment call to join a team of what Prof Berger dubbed “underground astronauts”. They would carry on an intensive yet careful exploration of the amazing hominin fossil remains in the Dinaledi chamber of the Rising Star cave system, located less than an hour’s drive from Johannesburg.
The call for applicants to become underground astronauts had required that they be research savvy, youthful, athletic (even thin) researchers prepared to climb and slither their way through the precarious underground cave system and navigate a narrow, precipitous drop to the chamber floor.
This was not something for casual weekend explorers or anyone who might be nervous about difficult and dangerous manoeuvring in a cave system.
In fact, the transit to and from the cave floor, as difficult as it was, was simply the trip back and forth to the actual worksite where the underground astronauts carried out the hard, sometimes tedious, work on the chamber floor.
And, after a full shift digging and scraping, using chisels, hammers, dental tools, whisks and small brushes, there remained the equally taxing return to the surface, back through that same daunting passage they had traversed earlier.
Berger explained that Molopyne was an easy choice for him because she was already a technical diver with the proven competence to work in extreme conditions, as well as possessing the fortitude to work in those dangerous environments.
Molopyane joined the Rising Star cave research team in 2018 as a junior underground astronaut.
Now that she has obtained her PhD in biological anthropology, she has assumed her new leadership role in the expedition and has become the first postdoctoral research fellow at the Wits Centre for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey, headed by Berger — an explorer at large for National Geographic.
Molopyane’s new research will involve a re-exploration of the Gladysvale cave system at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.
Berger adds that the importance of ongoing research at the Cradle of Humankind comes about in part because, for the past 15 or 20 years, Africa has been a real hotspot in the search for a fuller understanding of the origins of the human species.
Although there is considerable significant work being done at the Cradle, he explains, in reality there are only a couple of dozen active researchers working in this field throughout the whole of Africa, despite the fact that this continent represents a third of the entire habitable landmass of our planet. That means there is an enormous amount of space left to explore and find important insights into the origin of humankind.
As Molopyane and I talk, I glance at photos of her in the cave chamber and remark on the fact that she’s working without protective gloves. Her manicured nails don’t look like what one might expect of someone digging into a cave floor in search of fossil hominin remains. She laughs and replies, “With gloves on I can’t feel anything. And I like getting my hands dirty.” Makes sense and just maybe it serves this interviewer right for asking about those nails? Hmm.
We turn to her new National Geographic award and the international recognition it will bring. She says she hopes it will help her become one of the “big dogs” in her field, on into the future.
One of the challenges will be to find the language to explain to young people the intricacies of her profession without making science sound off-putting, arcane and distant. As she puts it, sometimes it is “tough to make things simple and clear”.
Of the award, the National Geographic Society says: “The Emerging Explorer cohort comprises individuals breaking through in their respective fields with big ideas. They are nominated by the National Geographic Society to become a part of the global National Geographic Explorer community of change-makers.
“Keneiloe was selected as a member of this cohort because she exemplifies what it means to be a National Geographic Explorer,” said Alex Moen, chief explorer engagement officer at the Society.
“Through her work as an archaeologist and biological anthropologist, and her focus on inspiring the next generation, Keneiloe is advancing our understanding of the world and all that’s in it.”
Berger, for his part, adds that these awards are important in recognising scientists early in their careers, rather than after they have already done important work and are recognised. He says there is a real need to find the early stars at a time when they need support and encouragement.
The Society says Molopyane is one of 15 scientists, educators and storytellers selected from around the globe. This year’s Emerging Explorer cohort includes people whose disciplines are as varied as culinary history and marine biogeochemistry.
With her own background, energy and experience, she certainly belongs in this club. Or, as Molopyane says of her new cohort, “They’re amazing people… phenomenal. I feel proud to represent Africa and hope to see more Africans receiving the same recognition in the coming years.”
After we disconnect our online link, I realise there is one last question I should have asked about how she carries out the work on that cold, dark, spooky cave floor.
What music plays through her earbuds while she works away carefully excavating fossils? Is it golden oldies… some classic rock? Or maybe Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata, or perhaps even Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre?
Or perhaps it is music from John Williams’ evocative soundtracks for the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park movies. Or maybe some soothing New Age chanting keeps her company and helps her focus on the delicate work at hand? I wonder. Maybe I should call her back and find out. DM
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