Bones of ancient human ancestors get a special flight to the US
Emirates Airlines recently flew two very special dignitaries from South Africa to the US — their oldest passengers ever at about 1.9 million and 300,000 years old.
The bone-tired duo – nicknamed “Neo” and “Karabo” – landed in Dallas, where they were whisked through customs in custom-built gun cases after their grueling journey in the overhead compartment.
Our ancient relatives received special TSA clearance – and even special “paleopassports” — for their flight to Dallas, where they are the star attraction at a new exhibit at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
“We were really thrilled when Homeland Security offered to ‘stamp’ them so Neo and Karabo could have ‘tourist visas’ for their stay, Becca Peixotto, an archaeologist who recover many of the ancient bones, told The Post.
“Science is fun, after all. It was great to meet people who have a sense of humor and fun amidst all the stress of moving these invaluable world heritage objects,” she added.
Titled “Origins: Fossils from the Cradle of Humankind,” the exhibit opened Oct. 19 and runs through March 22.
“We are thrilled to be hosting these rare treasures, which have given the world a greater understanding of our human story,” museum CEO Linda Silver told The Post in a statement.
“This is the first time ancient human fossils have left Africa for display since 2007, and this is also the first time that two different species have been shown together outside of Africa, making this a big moment for the specimens themselves, the Perot Museum, and the field of science overall,” she added.
Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist who discovered both sets of fossils, told the Dallas Morning News that the responsibility of carrying the bones across the world on planes was “terrifying.”
“They are obviously priceless heritage objects,” the professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand told the newspaper.
Berger found Karabo while exploring with his son, Matthew, and their dog about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg — in an area of limestone hills and olive groves called the Cradle of Humankind, where many early human ancestors have been discovered.
The remains belonged to a previously unknown species of early human relative that Berger named Australopithecus sediba, which had lived 2 million years ago, around the time our own genus, Homo, first emerged.
Five years later, he discovered another new species, Homo naledi, which lived much more recently – 300,000 years ago. Neo, an adult male, represents the most complete naledi skeleton.
“Either discovery would be very significant on its own,” John Kappelman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Dallas Morning News. “To have both of them come through is remarkable.”
Berger said it is not known if Neo could talk, “but it could have had a more complex language than just an animal language.”
“Human evolution isn’t a linear process of one species leads to the next, leads to the next, and sediba and naledi reinforce that,” Peixotto, who climbed through South African caves to recover many of naledi’s bones, told the paper.
Peixotto, whom Berger dubbed an “underground astronaut,” practiced for the expedition by crawling under her IKEA bed — the only piece of furniture she had that was exactly 7 inches off the ground, the same tiny opening she’d have to navigate in the cave.
She now heads the Perot Museum’s Center for the Exploration of the Human Journey.
The last early human skeleton to leave Africa was “Lucy,” our famous 3.2 million-year-old relative from Ethiopia that went on tour in 2007.
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