When Dr. Keneiloe Molopyane talks about taking a “Road to Exploration,” she’s actually looking in her rearview mirror. Keneiloe studies fossils in an attempt to unlock the mysteries of humankind’s past. She says she is “not trying to figure out where it is that we’re trying to go, but figuring out where it is that we have been—through the remains of our ancestors.”
Keneiloe wasn’t always interested in fossils, but that changed in 2018, when she had the opportunity to explore the “Cradle of Humankind”—a paleoanthropological site northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. The region holds the largest concentration of fossil sites in the world—15, to be precise—and Keneiloe is proud to have worked on three of them. The first was Rising Star Cave, the location of the discovery, starting in 2013, of fossils that were eventually linked to a previously unknown species of hominin now known as Homo naledi. “I had a great time with the Rising Star team, going into deep, dark caves, tight spaces,” she recalls, “uncovering ancient bones that would tell the story of the human journey, adding to the map of becoming modern humans as we understand it.”
Keneiloe’s second site was UW 105, which she describes as being in the shadow of Rising Star. Here she had a lead role on the team that took a first crack at piecing together the puzzle of disassociated mining activity—enriched blocks that had been piled up by miners from the early 1900s and which contained fossils that had been moved from their original locations. Other scientists typically ignored them, unable to place them in context. Keneiloe’s team took on the mission of re-associating the removed fossils with their original background, reconstructing an underground cave system above ground—and discovering a new hominid in the process.
After Keneiloe was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, she became the principal investigator at her third site—Gladysvale. “Never in the history of South Africa has a young black woman been the leading force or the leading voice in paleoanthropological exploration in the country,” she says. “The face of paleoanthropology is changing in South Africa; it’s no longer dominated by all white males or people from abroad coming into Africa and studying our fossils and telling us about them.”
About Keneiloe Molopyane
Archaeologist and Biological anthropologist, Dr Keneiloe Molopyane is the first research fellow at the Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey, University of the Wittwatersrand. She also holds the title of being the first black woman palaeoanthropologist to act as principal investigator in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa, as she takes on to re-explore and continue excavations at Gladysvale caves. Molopyane is also a National Geographic Emerging Explorer 2021, HiTec Heritage Hero, SuperScientists hero, and and Inspiring Fifty SA 2021 winner.
About Women Blaze Trails Festival:
In celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), LenovoEDU sponsored Women Blaze Trails, a virtual 3-day festival celebrating women in science, exploration, and conservation from around the world.
The virtual festival had one simple goal: celebrating incredible women, doing incredible things around the world, day in and day out. We’re sharing these videos from the festival so you can meet scientists, explorers, conservationists, filmmakers, photographers and more, showcasing their work, challenges, adventures, research and expeditions.