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Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind

Just embarked on a journey to the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Africa, where the rich tapestry of our human origins unfolds. 🇿🇦✨


The fossils and archaeological sites here have unveiled fascinating chapters of our evolutionary history, offering a glimpse into the roots of humanity. 🦴👣


In 2021, Dr Keneiloe Molopyane, archaeologist, was named as an "emerging explorer" by the National Geographic Society. Discover her story in this interview!


Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind

My name is Dr Keneiloe Molopyane, an Archaeologist and Biological Anthropologist from South Africa. My research takes place in possibly the best place in the world for anyone interested in human origins…the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa.


My missions

Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind

In 2021, I became a National Geographic Explorer, and the Principal Investigator (PI) for the Gladysvale Cave system in the Cradle of Humankind. Both incredible achievements and accolades that in their own right mark the transition of Transformation in the Palaeosciences. As the PI at Gladysvale, the first South African black women to do so, I lead the research and expeditions that occur at the site with the aid of funding and general support from the National Geographic Society and Genus Palaeosciences.


When I’m not living my best Lara Croft life, I switch into Indiana Jones mode. By this I am referring to lecturing in archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand, in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies.

When I’m not living my best Lara Croft life, I switch into Indiana Jones mode.
Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind

Not a lot of people realise this, but to some extent, archaeology aids in giving us a global sense of who we are as Homo sapiens. An example that I can think of right now, is in the year 2024, we will celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the discovery of the Taung Child. If you do not know who the Taung Child is, a quick Google search will take you on a journey in which you will hopefully learn about this incredible ancient human ancestor fossil discovered in South Africa, 1924. What makes this fossil, and subsequent others, incredible and unbelievably important is that it marked/forced the world’s perception of humans having originated in Europe or Asia, and not Africa. Well, this little guy [Taung Child/Australopithecus africanus] proved to be a very early “human” fossil that would draw attention to Africa as the birthplace of humankind.  


A day with me

Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind

The most exciting time of the year for me would be when expeditions are scheduled, usually in the winter months. I typically spend at minimum 4-6 weeks doing fieldwork in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. Working 5 days a week. When we are out on expeditions, the team and I camp out close to our excavation site, sleeping in tents and having dinners around a campfire that we would have to make every night to keep warm.


 A typical day would involve early mornings at base camp having coffee with the team, probably chatting about how cold the previous night was having slept in a tent, before we head out to site to start a full day of either squeezing through near impossible tight spaces in a cave system to excavate well hidden fossil remains or flexing our muscles recovering fossil-bearing breccia blocks from underground and hauling them up to the surface. Every archaeological/palaeoanthropological site is different, and so our approach to it would be different…and so, no two expeditions are ever the same.



My background

I wanted to become an archaeologist from the tender age of 7 years old. All of this came about after having watched a cartoon program one morning that sparked my interest in exploration and making discoveries. I recognise that I am one of very few people that followed through with their childhood dreams and I have my family to thank for not letting the interest fade away. Books, movies, and the occasional family outing to historical places or just being out in nature did a lot (even though I didn’t realise it at the time) to nurture my curiosity.


Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind
I would go back in time and encouraged my younger self to take the opportunities presented much earlier, and not doubt myself so much, but at the end of the day the choices made had some pretty decent outcomes.

My experience as a woman in archeology

Gender-related challenges are present in almost all industries and sectors today, which is shocking given that women have been critical in the workforce for many many years now. Being a woman of colour, and early career researcher in the palaeosciences, now that’s something to talk about. It’s not easy looking around the metaphorical table and not seeing faces that look like yours. Despite having incredibly supportive colleagues, it can be lonely and sometimes it feels like what you are going through is not what they went through. That’s just the ugly side of the journey to success, imposter syndrome…where you are your own worst enemy. I haven’t figured everything out, but building your own support system of people that you identify as being for you, goes a long way in maintaining your mental health.


Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind
Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind

Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind

The Superscientists


Superscientists

We all love a good fictional superhero, they can shrink down to the quantum realm or jump over a building in a single bound. Real scientists, real people, have just as amazing powers! Scientists can see individual atoms within a molecule, read the DNA of a single cell in a tumor, and peer back in time to when black holes collided. They have saved millions of lives through their research and technological advances, and are solving questions today that people have asked for millennia.

SuperScientists was developed to inspire young people and help them see themselves in the faces and life stories of scientists working today. SuperScientists makes learning hands-on and fun, while providing rich information about science and scientists to people young and old.


Outside of work

At the moment, I am not very good at this because I am in my busiest season in terms of my career. I am essentially trying to strike whilst the iron is soft and palpable, so as to set myself up nicely for the next coming years when the next generation of explorers arrive on the scene.


Other than sleeping? Lol!! I am a bit of a foodie, I enjoy good food. A couple of years ago I started cooking and would try out recipes I would see on TV from the likes of Gordon Ramsey, MasterChef, and such shows. I got good at it in a short space of time and this has resulted in me being in charge of cooking all the special holiday meals for the family. Turns out that cooking was also an excellent way for me to manage my anxiety.



Edited by Mazzarine D. and Léa C.


Find her here: Instagram: @keneiloe 

Twitter: @keneiloe


Keneiloe Molopyane: Unveiling Humanity's Origins in the Cradle of Humankind

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