Thierra Nalley: Another View from the Field #3—South Africa


As I mentioned in my previous post, my next stop is in lovely South Africa (SA), which is currently in the grips of winter and quite chilly. The goal of this trip is to visit the Ditsong (formerly known as the Transvaal) Museum of Natural History. Some of the earliest discovered and most famous hominins are from the South African sites Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Kromdraai and are stored at the Ditsong Museum. But before I get to business, the theme of community continues as I meet up with ASU/IHO alums Drs. Laura Bidner and Amy Rector–Verrelli for a few days of adventure. Dr. Rector-Verrelli is a paleoecologist and is currently faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is running a South African summer program for a group of undergraduate students. Dr. Bidner is a primatologist and has a postdoctoral position at the University of Fort Hare here in SA. Since we were all so close at the same time, Dr. Rector-Verrelli invited Dr. Bidner and myself to accompany her and her students to Kruger National Park to see some of Africa’s famous wildlife and perhaps give the students different perspectives in biological anthropology. And holy crap, the day drives through the park were successful—sometimes also most too successful (rhinos are especially grouchy when there are babies in the herd). Even our camp was alive with wildlife. There were bushbabies and fruit bats in the trees at night and vervet monkeys and warthogs in the mornings, both attempting to get into the trash. All in all it was very exciting and fun to experience the park with friends and colleagues.


I left Dr. Rector-Verrelli’s group as they were headed to Capetown and to later visit the IHO crew currently excavating at Mossel Bay. Dr. Bidner traveled back to her baboon troop in the mountains of Hogsback, and I got a ride to Pretoria and the Ditsong Museum. The museum is currently being renovated, so its full glory is unfortunately under dust and scaffolding, but the sense of history here cannot be ignored. The hominin vault, also known as “The Broom Room,” is filled with tall cases made of glass and wood, the shelves are lined with red velvet, and this small room has a distinct Old-World feel. And as I mentioned, some of the most famous hominin fossils are stored here as well as the relics of their discoverers. Dr. Robert Broom was an advocate of human origins in Africa (when at the time the field was also considering Asia) and the discovery of the Mrs. Ples skull (STS 5) aided in the paradigm shift started by Raymond Dart and his description of the South African Taung child fossil in 1924. Another pioneer, Dr. C.K. (Bob) Brain, is also present, whose continued work at Swartkrans until the late 1980s helped to develop the modern day study of taphonomy (how organic remains transition to fossils).

Dr. BroomDr. CK (Bob) Brain labThe museum staff is lovely, and I am setup at a desk surrounded by skeletons of African animals. There only a few Australopithecus (Paranthropus) robustus cervical vertebrae, but they are nicely preserved. Australopithecus africanus has a frustratingly large number of vertebrae, but alas, none are from the cervical spine. I chose to get them out anyway, just to see the famous STS 14 skeleton and of course take notes on the vertebral morphology.

craniaworkstation in Ditsong Museum

That is it for this trip! I have a brief stop in Nairobi, Kenya before I am off to Paris, France. The whirlwind museum tour continues!

Take care,


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