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Mercyhurst scientist chosen to study early hominin fossils in Africa

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A team of young scientists from around the world has been assembled to study more than 1,200 early hominin fossils recovered deep in a South African cave during November 2013. Among those selected to participate in this unique project is Mercyhurst University’s Heather Garvin, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology. 

Garvin will travel to South Africa’s University of Witwatersand in May to join other early-career scientists at a month-long workshop, where they will process and analyze the African early hominin materials retrieved from the Rising Star Cave near Krugersdorp. The genus and species of the recovered fossils will remain unknown until the scientists can perform detailed analyses. However, the use of the term “early hominin” suggests that scientists believe these fossils are related to the human lineage – meaning they may be related to our evolutionary ancestors, Garvin said.

Believing that there are still more big hominin discoveries to come, project leader Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, sought to engage young scientists in studying the latest finds under the mentorship of senior established scientists.

“It’s an absolutely amazing opportunity to work among some of the world’s top paleoanthropologists and to be one of the first individuals to get an up-close look at these remains,” Garvin said. 

As a young scientist with degrees in anthropology, zoology, biological and forensic anthropology, and functional anatomy and evolution, Garvin, 30, was eager to apply for Berger’s team, stressing her research in human skeletal variation and macro‐ and micro‐evolutionary events. Her selection, she said, was no doubt enhanced by her collection of more than 700 3D surface scans of skulls and associated postcranial measurements from around the world that could be used to compare the hominin fossils to modern forms.

“This new find is truly a unique scenario where there is evidence of multiple individuals from a single site,” Garvin said. “Most of the time single fossils are found and you can’t tell much about the population as a whole. Given that there are multiple individuals, we may be able to draw some conclusions regarding the group of hominins as a whole.”

Garvin received her undergraduate degrees from the University of Florida, her master’s degree from Mercyhurst University, and her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.  She is in her second year of teaching at Mercyhurst.