Alumnus assists in homo naledi breakthrough
Dr. Zachary Throckmorton ’07, who teaches anatomy at Tennessee’s Lincoln Memorial University, was among the select international group of researchers who published the first analyses of Homo naledi, a previously unknown species of ancient hominin. Among other interesting qualities, the creature appears to have deliberately interred the bodies of its dead, a practice once thought exclusive to modern humans. Amid the flurry of media attention, the project was the cover story in National Geographic’s October issue and the subject of a NOVA/National Geographic TV special. More recently Throckmorton co-authored a paper in the journal Nature Communications based on his particular specialty, which in the case of Homo naledi indicates that the species walked upright.
“The part that I work on, the foot and ankle, is very modern,” he says. “Whereas, say, the shoulder joint is not modern-like at all, and anyone can see the differences.”
Opportunity of a lifetime
Throckmorton, 34, who came to UIndy in 2004 to study evolutionary anatomy under Professor John Langdon and earn his master of science degree in human biology, described the ongoing project as the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Every once in a while there’s a remarkable discovery or development that provides an enormous amount of new data that is really exciting for everyone in the field to start considering,” the Michigan native said. “If you had told me in 2004, ‘Hey, you’d better get back to studying because in a decade you’re going to have an opportunity to describe a new species of the genus Homo,’ I would have said ‘Yeah, sure.’”
Having stayed in touch with many UIndy faculty members he now considers professional colleagues, Throckmorton was invited to campus in November to meet with students and deliver a presentation for the University community and the public.
“My gratitude is to the Anthropology and the Biology departments,” he said. “They were all very kind to a young graduate student when I showed up there, and I learned a lot from them.”
Specialty pays off
The Homo naledi fossils were first uncovered in 2013 in a cave known as Rising Star near Johannesburg, South Africa, on expeditions led by Lee Berger, a research professor at the nearby University of the Witwatersrand. Throckmorton got involved when Berger discreetly announced an opportunity for up-and-coming scientists with particular specialties to join in a special project. With his expertise in foot and ankle evolution, Throckmorton was among the lucky few selected from hundreds of applicants. He spent six weeks during the summer of 2014 and another three weeks this spring participating in the Rising Star Workshop at Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute, analyzing specimens to describe what had been found.He plans to continue on the project, and he expects more groundbreaking discoveries to follow.
“I am very fortunate,” he says. “And I would not be here and I would not have had this opportunity if it weren’t for Dr. Langdon. . . . He knew what I was capable of, and he pushed me to do what I could, and that’s what I needed when I was 23.”—Scott Hall