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An interview with SFU’s Marina Elliott, the new Jane of the jungle

With many notable achievements under her belt, Elliott is a young, fierce explorer not to be underestimated

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Image Credits: Valerie Cheng

Marina Elliott has been named one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers of 2016. An SFU alumna who studied biological anthropology, Elliott has spent the past few years in South Africa, uncovering the history of humanity.

Elliott’s journey began in Calgary, but she found a place to call home here at SFU. One of her favourite experiences during her time in school was joining the Human Evolutionary Studies program research team headed by professor Mark Collard. That research team has since opened up some great opportunities for the budding palaeoanthropologist, Elliott explained.

Her background in climbing and cave exploration, or ‘spelunking’ as it’s referred to in the field, made her a perfect candidate for the Rising Star Expedition under the leadership of Lee Berger.

Rising Star is an excavation site in the Cradle of Humankind, where the remains of Homo naledi were discovered in 2013. The Cradle is a 47,000-hectare World Heritage Site about 50 km northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s composed of complicated limestone caves where many hominin discoveries have been made.

“I spent quite a bit of time as a kid in the Rockies and the Badlands, running in and out of dark places,” Elliot said. Now the five to seven hours per day that Elliott spends in the small cave-home of the of Homo naledi is child’s play, she added. As soon as she’s out of the caves, though, “the next priority is a shower and snack!” The explorers generally move around the cave in bare feet, so that they “are more sensitive to the ground and where the fossils might be,” but that can lead to a dirty work day.

Elliott has also gained experience at other locations. She has worked in Siberia and Alaska, but noted that “both projects were very different from Rising Star — and also each other. Siberia was a Holocene burial area on the shores of Lake Baikal. The burials can vary quite a bit in size and complexity, but are generally [. . .] straightforward to excavate.

“Exploration is still an essential part of the scientific process.” – Marina Elliott

“Alaska was more of a ‘salvage’ operation, as the burials were in danger of washing into the sea as a result of erosion caused by climate change. The burials there were harder to identify, and so we dug a lot of ‘test pits’ to find the material.”

The pressure was on in Alaska in more ways than one. The crew at that site excavated under armed guard, which is not a typical experience. Elliott explained that the protection was there “not for people, but for the polar bears.”

Elliott’s had plenty of adventures already in her career, and she can’t wait to embark on new ones. “I’d love to go to some of the other hominin sites [. . .] around the world. This is a really exciting time to be in anthropology and exploration science.”

Of the Rising Star find, Elliott remarked that “Homo naledi’s discovery is challenging a lot of ideas about how palaeoanthropology does ‘business’ and about how we think about human evolution.

“In particular, I think it is reminding us that we still have a lot to learn about the human family tree [. . .] It demonstrates that there were a lot more species out there than we realized and some we couldn’t have predicted in advance. I think it’s also reinforcing the idea that exploration is still an essential part of the scientific process — we need people to get out there and be looking for new discoveries [. . .] in all disciplines,” Elliott explained.

The young explorer recalled that her initial reaction “to seeing the chamber and the fossils for the first time was surprise.

“We had been told that we would likely be excavating a single individual, probably of a known species, [. . .] but when I saw the amount of material in the chamber, I realized it was going to be a much bigger project than we anticipated. [. . .] We brought up fossil after fossil and realized that we were dealing not only with multiple individuals, but with a species unlike anything anyone had seen before. It was pretty mind-blowing,” Elliott said.

In addition to excavating Rising Star, Elliott has spent her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Witwatersrand. There, she’s been doing “an awful lot of outreach and public speaking on the discovery, [which] has been really interesting and rewarding.” She has also conducted research on the Homo naledi skeletal material, and been in charge of other field operations. Currently, Elliott is heading a six-person exploration crew that explores and surveys other caves in the Cradle to try and find new sites.

She misses her family, which makes Skype an important tool in her arsenal. What she misses most about Vancouver is the ocean. “I love the sea, and sometimes wish I could go for a run or walk along the Seawall like I used to do in Vancouver.” Luckily, Elliott gets to return to Canada a couple of times a year, which has helped her stay grounded.

If you ever do meet her, just keep in mind that Elliott is not a paleontologist: “I don’t dig up dinosaurs! I get that a lot when I say I am a palaeoanthropolgist. [. . .] It’s not that I don’t think dinosaurs are cool too, but it’s not what I do.”

Through her careful excavations, Elliott is helping SFU build its name as a home for world explorers.

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