Conversations with: Dr Mirriam Tawane

Today, I am delighted to introduce Dr Mirriam Tawane, Curator of the Plio-Pleistocene collection at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History in South Africa! Mirriam was awarded her Bachelor of Science degree, Master of Science degree and PhD in Paleoanthropology all from the University of Witwatersrand, becoming the first black South African female to qualify as a palaeoanthropologist in 2012. She has been involved in many public engagement initiatives over the years, as she is passionate about her country’s heritage and public engagement in human evolution. She has participated in several community projects to teach the general public about the palaeosciences in South Africa, the majority of which are carried out in the language choice of the audience.

Dr Mirriam Tawane, Curator of the Plio-Pleistocene collection at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History in South Africa.

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

I spent most of my studies focusing on dental morphology. I have been collaborating on research topics aligned with dentition of hominins.  I am also doing a lot of outreach focusing on teaching human evolution at schools. It is a project that has been ongoing for some time, and with it mushrooms projects that we implement to mitigate the situations we come across. These could be lack of teaching materials, or teachers and scholars needing assistance regarding the subject.

What originally drew you towards palaeoanthropology?

While in high school, I had no interest in the subject. To be honest I was not even aware of such a career choice. It was only when I did a Palaeontology course taught under Zoology third year that I became aware of such an option. I grew up in one of the villages in Taung, about 25 kilometres from Buxton Village. Buxton village is a village where the Taung skull was discovered. During one of Palaeontology lectures, I was introduced to the scientific information about the Taung skull, its discovery, and the role and significance its discovery has played in the all that we know regarding the origin of ManKind. Having only known what I could label ‘the village gossip’ regarding the skull, and realising the lack of participation (or participation in limited numbers) of people of colour in the field; I was motivated to pursue the course all the way to PhD level.

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience, as the first black South African female to qualify as a paleoanthropologist?

My PhD topic was “Dental size and frequency of anomalies in the teeth of a small-bodied population of Mid-Late Holocene Micronesians, Micronesia”. I worked on dental remains of specimens Prof Lee Berger discovered in the Palau Islands. The specimens recorded very large teeth compared to their short stature and small brain. These could be attributed to diet and possibly hereditary features.

My PhD experience was exciting and scary at the very same time. As most of us will experience a lot in our lifetime, there are usually those unspoken criticism that one is subjected to, they end up making you doubt yourself, your capabilities.  Having said that I need to admit that I was my biggest critic during those years. Everything I did, I had to redo, double check; just to make sure that it is the best I could do at that particular moment. My biggest challenge was to tell myself “Relax, you have made it this far. You are going to make it”.

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand for few years. I worked on several projects. One was looking at some of the remains from Sterkfontein caves. I discovered the hominin first rib of Australopithecus africanus from Member 4. Upon analysis, we determined that it falls closest to the small bodied Australopithecines (AL 288-1 and MH1).

I also worked on a stakeholder analysis of all the stakeholders involved at the Taung Skull Fossil Site. This was to determine the status of development of the site, and how all the stakeholders relate and work together towards achieving this. I also participated in outreach projects to deliver the much needed information about the site, the skull to the communities within the vicinity of the site. These targeted the scholars in a form of workshops at schools as well as the general public in the form of a heritage day celebration hosted on the 24 September. The 24th September is national Heritage day in South Africa. 

Human evolution workshops at schools in Taung.

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I am currently working on a national project to get museums in the country curating all Humanities related collections working together for the benefits of the heritage objects in the country. This initiative is to address certain objectives necessary for the preservation and safeguarding of the collection. Collection housing institutions tend to be fragmented and isolated. What is happening on the left hand is usually not known by the right hand. Implementing best practices and common standards with regards to a museum environment, focusing mainly on humanities collections is also prioritised. The aim is to standardise collection care, although there will be exceptions here and there. I am hopeful that this project will bring curators curating humanities related collections in the country close together; and that they will be collaboration between museums; and ultimately skills transfer; and achievement of the main goal of this initiative “safeguarding and preserving of the heritage collections in the country”. 

What project or publication or achievement of yours are you most proud of?

While working at Taung, together with a colleague at Wits, we sourced out funding to present human evolution workshops at schools. The aim of these workshops was to present the Palaeosciences as a career choice and to bridge a gap that existed regarding evolution and related subjects that exists among communities living a stone throw away from the site. We compiled worksheets and human evolution teaching packs to donate to schools.

Evolution is a complex subject to learn. We introduced a form of edutainment to the project. Participating schools were tasked to create songs using the site, its discoveries as a focus point. That was very successful, as we ended up recording 9 songs that are both educational and very entertaining. The scholars took the challenge very seriously.

Human evolution workshops at schools in Taung.

What do you think is the most revolutionary discovery in human evolution research over the last 5 years?

I might be biased and focus on those that are perhaps close to home. I will have to mention the discovery of Homo naledi in 2015. Little foot might have been discovered in 1994, but it was in 2017 that it was unveiled for the world to see. The near completeness of the specimen is remarkable. I believe those discoveries and the continuous research on the specimens will add on to the knowledge we have regarding human evolution.

One need to acknowledge that technological advancement in the field is allowing for ground-breaking research to be undertaken in materials that are somewhat difficult to study.

I work in a museum environment, where we curate thousands of pieces of specimens or rather heritage objects, as they are mostly called in the museum environment; collected a long time ago. These pieces should be regarded as active chess pieces with the potential to contribute immensely to the active discussions and discoveries currently taking place.

What is the best thing about your job and what is one thing you would change if you could?

The best thing about my job is teaching. I do lectures and tours of the collections to scholars and the general public. When you present a tour of the collection to scholars with little knowledge about evolution; and you start to observe them grasping the concept; and the confusion slowly disappears from their faces; that comes with some form of contentment.  The one thing I could change, not entirely do away with is the amount of administration that one has to do. Yes administration is a significant role of any position; and it should be taken very seriously. I could streamline reporting in a way that few reports needs to be put together; and they will be suitable to be submitted to different departments or line managers.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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