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Hard Evidence

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By Hugh Hart

Published Apr 1, 2016 8:00 AM


Archaeologists' find yields the first complete ancient human genome from Africa.

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Gamo Archaeology Project team members excavating in Mota Cave. Matthew Curtis is at center, kneeling next to blue bucket. Photos courtesy of Matthew Curtis.

On a June morning in 2012, Matthew Curtis and his fellow investigators made the kind of discovery archaeologists dream about: the remains of a 4,500-year-old man. Of their discovery in an Ethiopian cave, Curtis, a UCLA Extension instructor, recalls, “It was exciting because we knew this skeleton could tell us a lot about the people who lived in this area at the time he was buried.”

In fact, “Bayira” and his well-preserved bones yielded the first complete ancient human genome from Africa. Curtis, who was co-principal investigator of the Gamo Highlands project with Kathryn Weedman Arthur and John W. Arthur from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, credits the scientific breakthrough to a collective effort by specialists from around the world.

“The kind of anthropology I do moves between disciplines,” Curtis says. “A palynologist studied pollen; paleoecologists looked at ancient lake sediment to determine precipitation rates; an archaeobotanist studied ancient remains of plants in the region; and an archaeologist specializing in geographic information systems used remote sensing software to generate satellite imagery that helps locate archaeological sites.”

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Together, the team compiled an astonishingly detailed portrait of prehistoric African man. University of Cambridge geneticists determined that Mota Man didn’t have the genes to process milk; that lactose intolerance, combined with the remains of wild plants and animals found in the cave, suggest he was a hunter-gatherer predating the domestication of cows.

Curtis, who launches his “Old Stone Age Archaeology” course in April, sees teaching as a way to share his archaeological adventures with students. “I’ve had the opportunity to do this wide range of work in St. Augustine, Florida; California; Kenya; Eritrea; and Ethiopia, so I’m able to draw from that field experience and give students a more personal taste of what anthropology is all about.”

Six years ago, Curtis began teaching three Extension courses on a rotating basis. He derives particular pleasure from showing students how to parse human experience through the multifaceted prism of anthropology. “I try to stress how anthropology views the past from both scientific and humanistic perspectives,” he says. “In this increasingly global society, it’s very useful to have a frame of reference for understanding cultures that may be very different from your own.”

That appreciation for diversity extends to the range of students in his classes. “I get everyone from anthropology majors who couldn’t get into a class on campus to people who take the course for the sheer joy of learning,” he says.

Many of their class discussions illuminate how universal themes can be embedded in the fragmentary particulars left behind by previous civilizations. Curtis observes, “Understanding the past is an important tool for coming up with solutions to the problems we deal with today.”

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