Hannah Hilbert-Wolf Lecture

18 October 2017,


Woolnough Lecture Theatre, Geology Building, UWA
General Public, Faculty/Staff, Students, Alumni

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Homo naledi

Dating Homo naledi: the story of the surprisingly young age for a new species of hominin that lived in Africa alongside early Homo sapiens

A public lecture by Dr Hannah Hilbert-Wolf, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, James Cook University.

Earlier this year an international team of scientists successfully dated the remains of Homo naledi, a new species of hominin (human ancestor), from the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. In 2013 the first ~1,550 bones belonging to Homo naledi were discovered ~30m below the Earth’s surface, in the dark and difficult-to-reach Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star Cave in The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. This new species was exciting and perplexing, as the skeletons displayed morphologies similar to both ancient hominins, such as the shape of the pelvis and a small skull, and to recent hominins, such as modern-looking feet. To understand how Homo naledi fits into the story of human evolution, the fossils needed to be robustly dated; a task that proved to be very difficult. 

Dr Hannah Hilbert-Wolf, a geologist who has herself studied the sedimentology in the depths of the Rising Star Cave, discovered hominin remains, and helped to date the fossils, will present the compelling story of the discovery of Homo naledi and explain the comprehensive dating approach taken by the team. Surprising results place the age of these fossils between 335,000 and 236,000 years old, which is far younger than what many experts anticipated. Additionally, the team recently announced the discovery of a second chamber (the Lesedi Chamber) deep in the Rising Star Cave, containing an additional 133 Homo naledi fossils. Dr Hilbert-Wolf will discuss how our newfound knowledge about Homo naledi allows us to question long-held assumptions about human evolution. Dr Hannah Hilbert-Wolf is a sedimentary geologist, with additional expertise in geochronology, tectonics, paleoseismicity, and paleontology.

Dr Hilbert-Wolf is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer at James Cook University (Townsville, QLD). She graduated from Carleton College (MN, USA) in 2012 with a BA in Geology and completed her PhD at James Cook University in 2016. Dr Hilbert-Wolf is presently investigating the geologic context and age of the Homo naledi hominin discoveries in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. Additionally, Hannah studies the geodynamics of the East African Rift System, to understand past rifting events and associated volcanism and uplift, and their effects on sedimentation, paleoenvironments, paleoseismicity, and faunal evolution.