Biology & Evolution Palaeoscience Science Today

Dr. Keneiloe “Bones” Molopyane: Unveiling Ancient Human Mysteries in South Africa


Archaeologist and biological anthropologist Keneiloe Molopyane is currently the lead excavator of the Dragon’s Back expedition, at the Rising Star cave system. Photo by Dirk van Rooyen.


It is a remarkable time for Dr. Keneiloe Molopyane, whose expertise as an archaeologist and biological anthropologist has led her to the forefront of scientific discoveries surrounding Homo naledi, an ancient human ancestor raising questions about what makes us human.

“I was that creepy girl in class that loved bones. I’ve been nicknamed bones by my friends. That’s how much I’m so into this. I mean, I’ve wanted to be an archaeologist since I was seven years old.”

In a recent interview with SciBraai, Dr. Molopyane shared her excitement and passion for her work and her involvement in the recent explosive speculation that Homo naledi buried their dead and left behind intriguing engravings.

As one of the lead excavators in the famed Rising Star cave system, Molopyane herself has been an integral part of the team unearthing the remains of Homo naledi, a previously unknown species of hominins. Her journey began in 2018 when she joined an expedition to the Dinaledi Chamber, where she joined the important work of understanding the distribution of fossils within the chamber.

“By 2018, we understood the distribution of the fossils within the chamber than we had in 2015, and that’s when we noticed the shallow burials as actual burials as the ground had been disturbed before us.”

Led by lead researcher and Homo naledi discover, Lee Berger, Molopyane and her team later discovered intriguing engravings in the cave, which could potentially challenge our understanding of human evolution.

In her interview, Dr. Molopyane recounted the thrilling experience of working in the cave system, crawling through tight spaces, and unearthing new evidence of Homo naledi’s behaviour. She expressed genuine surprise at finding the engravings, admitting she was initially skeptical but was eventually convinced by their authenticity. These engravings represent a new avenue of research, raising questions about the behaviours and capabilities of Homo naledi.

“I was that creepy girl in class that loved bones. I’ve been nicknamed bones by my friends. That’s how much I’m so into this. I mean, I’ve wanted to be an archaeologist since I was seven years old.”

Despite the exciting discoveries, Molopyane emphasized that this is just the beginning of a long and intricate process. The team is committed to rigorously analysing the evidence, seeking collaborations with other experts, and continuing their excavations in other chambers of the Rising Star cave system.

The value of public science is not lost on Molopyane and her team, as they have embraced openness and transparency by sharing preprints of their findings. By inviting scientists from around the world to examine and critique their work, they hope to enrich the research and improve their understanding of the Homo naledi fossils and their significance.

Dr. Molopyane also expressed her desire to involve more young South Africans in the field, inspiring a new generation of archaeologists and anthropologists. She acknowledged the risks and challenges involved in cave excavations but stressed the importance of fostering bravery and curiosity among aspiring scientists.

Enjoy the video version of this story below:


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