John Hawks is up to his neck in bones. He isn’t a physician who treats patients with osteoporosis, and he doesn’t x-ray fractures. The professor from the University of Wisconsin at Madison is, however, one of the world’s foremost paleoanthropologists who looks for and examines bones more than 250,000 years old in caves and elsewhere around the world.

In November 2013, Hawks and a team of scientists and diggers from around the world set up camp outside the Rising Star Cave about 65 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, and excavated and analyzed remains of Homo naledi, an ancestor of Homo sapiens – a link between Neanderthals and modern man. The discovery was announced officially in 2015. A UW-Madison professor played a leading role in excavating and analyzing more than 130 new Homo naledi fossils from the Rising Star cave in South. The expedition was led by Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand. The prehistoric humans lived between 226,000 and 335,000 years ago.

The Homo naledi skeleton with a more complete skull, collarbone and thigh bone was named Neo, whose brain is the size of an orange; it is about as complete as the famous Australopithecus skeleton named Lucy that was dug up in 1974. Homo naledi is a still-mysterious evolutionary cousin of early humans who may have shared the southern African savanna with them 250,000 years ago.

While their brain is considerably smaller than that of Homo sapiens, they were not dumb. It appears that they deliberately buried their dead in the dark, hidden caves so the remains would not be eaten by animals. Altogether, Hawks’s interracial male-and-female team uncovered some 2,000 hominin specimens in several chambers.

“I’ve worked on almost every part of our evolutionary story, from the very origin of our lineage among the apes up to the last 10,000 years of our history.”

Of the 206 bones in the human body, only about 20 are not represented in the cave.

“It’s an enormously complete sample in terms of representing different parts of the anatomy of humans.” The team knew that they found at least 18 individuals because they found the same type of tooth that many times. Hawks is one of the foremost scholars in human evolution who became well known for his work in relating human genetics to these archaic humans who became extinct about 40,000 years ago.

ON FEBRUARY 5, Hawks will be one of the speakers at the annual multidisciplinary meeting of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem. This year’s topic is “Time.” The varied nature of topics discussed and the local and international experts in the field participating will make it a unique gathering, open to the public. Other speakers will be Prof. Christos Papadimitriou of the University of Berkeley, who will talk about mathematical time; Tel Aviv University Prof. Nava Zisapel on the effect of jetlag and body clocks; and TAU and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center’s Prof. Nir Giladi about the time course of brain and cognitive deterioration in the elderly. Other lectures by internationally renowned experts will offer reflections on time and art, archeological time, whether time is active or passive and why we don’t understand history from the perspective of time.


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