Elen Feuerriegel (left) with MH1, the skull of Australopithecus sediba. Possibly the best selfie ever. Copyright Elen Feuerriegel.
**Elen Feuerriegel was one of six scientists that made up the Advance Science Team on the Rising Star Expedition. Read more here**
The oldest archaeological artefacts in the world are stone tools from sites in East Africa. We know a reasonable amount about the artefacts themselves, including their age (2.6 million years ago), the technical skills involved in their production (much more complex than simply banging rocks together) and even what they were used for (some of the time, butchering the carcasses of large animals). Yet a fundamental question surprisingly remains unanswered: who made them? This is a hard question to figure out because there wasn’t just one hominin species around at this time– and it’s even possible that several may have been capable of tool-making. This is where Elen Feuerriegel’s PhD research comes in: if we can’t tell who made the artefacts by studying the stone tools themselves, perhaps we can do it by studying the hominins- more specifically, their bodies.
Elen’s PhD thesis at the Australian National University, Canberra, is on what’s termed the biomechanics of knapping (stone tool-making), focusing in on the shoulder. She looks at the particular muscles that are used when people knap, and will compare the data from modern experiments to the patterns of muscle attachments on ancient hominin bones, hoping to see which fossil species had configuations closest to those of stone-tool makers.
The inner workings of the human body has fascinated Elen since learning about the science behind forensic anthropology as a teenager. However, although the gory realities of CSI proved unappealing, she pursued her love of anatomy at university, and fell in love with human evolution. Luckily for her, squeezing through the tiny and claustophobic passages of the Rising Star cave– which many would find just as scary as studying decomposing corpses- is a piece of cake for Elen, and means she gets about as up close and personal as possible with these ancient human ancestors.
But it’s sharing her incredible experiences deep underground with the next generation of future trowelblazers that has provided Elen’s most profound fieldwork memories, via an online chat with school children:
“The wonder that those kids experienced when we showed them the video feed of the site and the fossils in situ was one of the most thrilling things I have ever encountered.”
The desire to inspire others extends to Elen’s hope to develop palaeoanthropology courses of her own in future- she’ll certainly have some incredible excavation stories to tell.
Written by Becky (@LeMoustier)