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Student Spotlight: Paige Madison

June 1, 2017

Paige Madison, a PhD candidate studying the history of paleoanthropology at the Center for Biology and Society, has spent the last few months conducting dissertation research. In August 2016, Madison received a grant funded by the John Templeton Foundation, titled “Seeking Humanness in Fossils: What Does it Mean and How Do We Know?" For the grant research, Madison has spent much of this academic year traveling to England, South Africa, and Indonesia to learn more about the stories of fossil human ancestors.

Madison is searching for answers to tough questions about controversial fossils—where are they found, how are they studied, and, most importantly, what makes them so contentious? Archival research at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa allowed her to dig into the story of the controversial Taung Child (Australopithecus africanus), a proposed “missing link” discovered in 1924. She examined the papers of Taung’s discoverer, Raymond Dart, as well as the papers of many of his colleagues and supporters.

While in South Africa, Madison visited the famous Cradle of Humankind, including its fossil bearing cave of Sterkfontein, a site that was central to settling the Taung debate. She also gave a lecture at the Westbury Youth Centre as part of the Umsuka Palaeoanth Ed Program, a project that aims to make South African paleoanthropology accessible and relevant to locals. Her talk explored the ways the Taung fossil challenged—and ultimately overturned—leading ideas about what it means to be human.

Madison traveled to London as well, where she examined the archives of leading twentieth century anatomists who refused to believe that Taung, with its small brain and upright posture, could be a human ancestor. To learn more about the dissenters, such as leading anatomists Arthur Keith and Elliot Smith, Madison visited the Royal College of Surgeons, the Natural History Museum London, and more. This research on the controversial Taung fossil will serve as the second case study in her dissertation, adding to her research on the first recognized Neanderthal of the 1850s.

Finally, Madison traveled to Indonesia to gather information about her third and final case study: the proposed “hobbit” hominin from Flores named Homo floresiensis. To learn more about the hobbit’s story, Madison visited the cave of Liang Bua, the only known site that has divulged floresiensis fossils, to interview team members involved in the discovery. At Liang Bua, Madison learned about the excavations that lead to the controversial discovery, as well as the impact the controversy has had on the science. With the help of patient translators, Madison was able to speak to both leading Indonesian researchers who lead the team, as well as local villagers who wielded the digging tools that unearthed the surprising discovery in 2003.

Additionally, as part of the grant, Madison has been practicing public outreach, writing about her travels—along with other interesting issues in history and paleoanthropology—both on Twitter (@FossilHistory) and for her blog, fossilhistory.wordpress.com. Looking ahead to next year, Madison will be busily sifting through this vast amount of collected research as well as writing and preparing for her dissertation defense. She is also working with others in the Center for Biology and Society to organize a workshop that brings leading paleoanthropologists together with historians and philosophers of science to discuss the complexities of conducting scientific research on a topic as deeply personal as our own ancestry.

More Information: Paige Madison (Paige.Madison@asu.edu)

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