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Emerging Explorer

Marina Elliott

Biological Anthropologist

Picture of Marina Elliott

Photograph by Robert Clark/National Geographic

Breaking ground on the science of human origins

​Self-described “weird kid” Marina Elliott is proof that sometimes the most seemingly disparate interests can come together in amazing, unpredictable ways. She offhandedly mentions wanting to dissect roadkill as a girl, so it’s not surprising that her first career was as a veterinary nurse, practicing critical emergency medicine on small and exotic animals.

She then went back to school in her native Canada thinking she would get her doctorate in veterinary medicine, but she shifted to biological anthropology after taking a human origins class her first year back at school. She was finishing her Ph.D. when, in 2013, she made the fateful decision to apply when paleoanthropologist Lee Berger put out a call for help in excavating a cave called Rising Star, northwest of Johannesburg in South Africa.

The work involved squeezing through some very small tunnels, not to mention spending long hours in cramped, dark spaces. Not only did Elliott have an undergraduate education in archaeology that included fieldwork in the harsh environments of Siberia and Alaska, she also happened to be a recreational caver and climber: the perfect candidate.

What emerged from that adventure was a landmark discovery, a new species of human ancestor called Homo naledi. Elliott talks about the path that led her there, and the way forward. —By Christina Nunez

 

What have you been working on since the naledi find, and how did it change the direction of your career?

I’ve actually been continuing to excavate at Rising Star. The team has been exploring other areas of the cave and surrounding areas—and making more discoveries. So we hope to share those with the world in the near future. I’ve been doing quite a lot of excavation work and, as it turns out, quite a lot of public speaking. Obviously the launch and the media interest have been intense.

When Lee’s call came out in 2013, I was finishing a Ph.D. in biological anthropology and thought I was going to go into forensics, because at least there was a fair amount of work in that area. I never really thought that I would have a viable career in paleoanthropology, and in fact in biological anthropology it is pretty slim pickings these days as well. So I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my degree once I finished.

 

How did you become interested in this area, early on?

I don’t really know whether it was nature versus nurture, but I’ve always been interested in biology, since I was a very small child. I loved animals and I loved biology. But I also liked to figure out how things worked. My mother is a nurse and my father is an engineer, so I think I combined the best of both those worlds in thinking about biology and anatomy, but then wanting to actually figure out how things worked and why.

I read On the Origin of Species when I was 12, which was probably quite a bit lost on me, but I loved it. I guess I was a weird kid. I was into breeding birds at about a similar age, so I read quite a lot about animal husbandry and read Desmond Morris’s Patterns of Reproductive Behaviour and that kind of thing, just to further my interests in the animal world.

By extension, humans are just a slightly more fascinating animal in the sense that we’re all pretty egotistical about who we are and where we came from. I took a human origins class and learned exactly what biological anthropologists do in terms of the scope of their research, and thought, wow, that’s pretty cool; I could do that.

“It’s just exciting to realize that the great age of exploration isn’t over with, that there are places to explore and there are things to find.”

—Marina Elliott

You’ve mentioned before, and it shows in your work, that you seem to specialize in extreme or inhospitable environments. What draws you to them, or is it just where your interests take you?

No, I think I’ve also always been an adventurous—probably, in my mother’s words, fearless—child. I was always very sporty, always very curious. I think that’s probably what drives me into these areas, more than anything: curiosity, and a complete lack of sense when it comes to stuffing myself into places I probably shouldn’t.

 

You mentioned being interested in the question of where we came from. Why do you think it’s important to answer that question?

I think partly it’s just human nature. I mean, we all think about where we came from in terms of our own family tree. Everybody has this obsession with what your grandparents were like, or where you came from, or how this connects to that. I think just essentially we’re all very interested in how we fit, both in our society and in the larger world.

I think it ties into questions about why we do the things we do, or why sometimes we don’t do things the same way as somebody else or another group. I really love that diversity and variation.

 

What are you looking forward to? Do you think about other locations, other projects?

What this naledi find has very clearly demonstrated is that there really is a need for explorers: people who have a scientific background, but also have that adventurous spirit enough to go into areas that are unknown—or even known. This cave is in a populated area of South Africa; it’s a cave that’s very well known. It’s only a couple of kilometers away from one of the most famous caves for hominid material in the world, and yet people just weren’t looking in the right place, or weren’t “seeing” when they were looking.  

So for me, the next steps are about expanding this idea of exploration and taking it to new areas, whether that’s in South Africa or beyond. I’m certainly amenable to both. It’s just exciting to realize that the great age of exploration isn’t over with, that there are places to explore and there are things to find. That’s pretty cool.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


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