In a loud and dusty lab in Johannesburg, South Africa, Washington State University alum Brian Kuhn uses a tool that looks like a miniature jackhammer to pick away at a small block of rock. He’s eagerly anticipating what he will find inside.
As a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand’s Institute for Human Evolution who specializes in extinct carnivores, Kuhn is especially interested in the latest piece of rock he’s been given because he believes it holds the fossilized remains of a saber-toothed cat.
However, as Kuhn’s slow but steady work on the rock reveals more and more of the two bones inside, he realizes he isn’t dealing with an ancient cat at all.
“When I first had them out, it was disbelief,” he says. “I knew it was humanoid, but it was too small. I was excited, but I didn’t want to go overboard before I knew what I had.”
Kuhn rushed out of the lab and showed the bones, each only a few centimeters in length, to two visiting hominid experts. They confirmed what he suspected: “[One of them] sat down in a chair, looked at me, and said, ‘You found an infant.’”
In 2008, Kuhn’s team of scientists hit the fossil jackpot when they discovered a 14th fossil site at the Cradle of Humankind, a protected area 25 miles outside of Johannesburg. Since then, Kuhn has been examining bones from the site, now named Malapa, almost daily.
Fossils from at least 25 different species have been recovered from the Malapa site, including saber-toothed cats, a brown hyena, a wild dog, antelopes, rabbits and a horse. Most noteworthy is the discovery of two of the most complete hominid skeletons ever discovered. Scientists believe the hominids, which were only recently unveiled to the public, are a new species of human ancestors that lived around 2 million years ago.
Kuhn explains that while the new hominid, named Australopithecus sediba, is a transitional species because it bears characteristics of two different genuses, it may or may not be the species from which humans descended.
“People like to think of it as one line, but that’s not necessarily true,” he says. “We think there’s a whole bunch of little lines coming off the branches. This is one branch we’ve never seen before.”
Kuhn’s discovery of the infant bones, which was overshadowed by those of the two older hominids, is valuable to the study of the new species. Kuhn says it not only gives researchers a better idea of how these early humans developed but tells them how the hominids actually lived.
In an article Kuhn co-wrote for Science magazine, the scientists theorize that the hominids fell into a sinkhole and died. Kuhn believes the infant he uncovered, which was found within a meter of the adult female hominid, could have been her child.
“There’s only one other site in South Africa that has produced infants,” he says. “They’re very small bones and they’re easy to miss.”
While Kuhn speaks very highly of WSU, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in zoology and anthropology in 1991, he also says that as an undergrad, he never would have guessed his degrees would lead him to a career spent in the field in Africa, uncovering ancient fossils.
“If you had told me when I was there about what I’m doing now, I would have said you’re nuts,” he says. “I never though I would have a doctorate and be studying bones.”
After graduating from WSU, Kuhn volunteered for the Peace Corps in Morocco and Jordan. While in Jordan in the mid-’90s, Kuhn met an archaeologist; soon he knew exactly how he wanted to use his degrees. After earning a master’s degree from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, he moved to South Africa to earn his doctoral degree at the University of Pretoria and has been at the University of Witwatersrand since.
“I used to read about Donald Johanson, the guy who discovered Lucy [the famous hominid found in Ethiopia in 1974], and I wondered what that was like,” Kuhn says. “Now I know. It’s actually pretty damn cool.”