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Perot Museum To Host Rare Fossils From South Africa's 'Cradle of Humankind'

Australopithecus sediba is one of two rare fossil specimens that the Perot Museum of Nature and Science will host Fall 2019. It's the first time the fossils leave South Africa for public display.

The rare bones of two ancient human relatives are leaving their home in South Africa for the first time for public display, and they're headed to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. 

Australopithecus sediba and homo naledi will be the stars of a new limited-run exhibit called "Origins: Fossils From The Cradle of Humankind." 

The UNESCO Heritage Site near Johannesburg, Cradle of Humankind, is home to a number of homini fossils. Those ancient bones have helped uncover some of the mysteries of our evolutionary family tree. 

Researchers dug up the fossils there in 2008 and 2013, after they'd spent ages hidden in the earth. One set of fossils is about 300,000 years old. The other is about 2 million years old.

Credit Perot Museum of Nature and Science
Perot Museum of Nature and Science
Archeologist Becca Peixotto is part of the Rising Star expedition team that discovered the fossils. She's also the director of the Center for the Exploration of the Human Journey at the Perot Museum.

Archeologist Becca Peixotto is part of the expedition team that found the fossils that will be on display at the Perot. 

"These fossils are very important to our understanding of human evolution and where we come from and our shared humanity in deep time," Peixotto said. 

She is still in South Africa, wrapping up field work in the same underground cave system where the fossils were found.

"The caving and the excavation are really quite physical work, and they're also mentally challenging," she said.

As director of the museum's Center for the Exploration of the Human Journey, Peixotto will now help introduce the specimens to a North American audience. 

The 5,000-square-foot exhibition will feature a virtual reality tour of the cave where the fossils were found and a dig pit where visitors can use radar to find fossil replicas.

Credit John Hawks / Wits University
Wits University
Homo naledi is the single largest fossil hominin find yet made on the continent of Africa.

Museum CEO Linda Silver says researchers interested in studying the fossils will also have access.

"We have built into the exhibition a laboratory space, so that they can come and take the fossils off display and work on them," Silver said. "But, that work has to be done in front of the public."  

The exhibit is a partnership between the Perot Museum and Wits University in Johannesburg. Once it runs its course at the Perot, the entire exhibit will head back to South Africa for display there. 

Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.