UW-Madison’s “Origins” explores stories of our beginnings in South Africa

By Kelly Tyrrell

Astronomical constellations, stars, and the Milky Way pass in the night sky above the moonlit Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in the remote, desert highland of the Karoo near Sutherland, South Africa on July 18, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidenceÊof life on Earth as preserved in the geological recordÊandÊthe evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

In July 2017, a University of Wisconsin–Madison science writer, photographer and a video producer — Kelly Tyrrell (that’s me), Jeff Miller and Justin Bomberg — traveled nearly 9,000 miles, from Wisconsin to South Africa. Because while our campus may be located in Madison, it’s the partnerships across the state, the country and the world that make us all stronger. This is the Wisconsin Idea.

In South Africa, these collaborations have led to scientific endeavors to explore our origins, from the beginnings of the universe, to the earliest life on Earth and the first days of humankind. As a small team, we sought to tell the stories of the science, and the scientists, that unite our two nations. We have published the results of this storytelling project in a new, immersive multimedia experience we call Origins, which you can find here.

Origins focuses on the astronomers who use the Southern African Large Telescope to peer into the vast expanses of the universe. It highlights the geoscientists exploring the ancient, well-preserved rock record unique to South Africa. And it follows the anthropologists who toil in dark caves, in search of our earliest ancestors.

For two weeks, we spent time with the UW–Madison scientists, their students, and their partners in South Africa. We learned much about a nation that has with pride embraced the sciences, staking its future on the rich contributions it has made and continues to make.

We also learned much about the toll decades of apartheid took on the nation and its people. From 1948 until the early 1990s, the government of South Africa systematically oppressed its black and “coloured” people, who make up more than 90 percent of its population. Apartheid’s effects continue to touch the science done there today and influence the parts our researchers play.

We met South African scientists like Kathy Kuman and her husband, Ron Clarke, two world-renowned researchers who chose to sacrifice their careers and leave their adopted country in the 1980s so their daughter would not be born under apartheid.

Today, UW–Madison anthropologist, Travis Pickering, works with Kuman and Clarke at Swartkrans and Sterkfontein, two caves in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site that have served critical roles in our understanding of human evolution.

In Origins, you learn about the summer field school he runs for UW–Madison undergraduates, and the role he is playing now helping train one of South Africa’s promising, young black female anthropologists, Recognise Sambo. You also learn about efforts by another UW–Madison anthropology professor, John Hawks, and his South African collaborators to unearth breathtaking new discoveries about our ancestors, including the newest, Homo naledi, discovered at Rising Star cave near Johannesburg in 2013.

You also meet Nic Beukes, who collaborates with UW–Madison geoscience professor Clark Johnson, and is helping to train South Africa’s next generation of geoscientists at the University of Johannesburg, a school that once taught only white students. These scientific partners helped identify some of the earliest evidence of life on the planet among some of Earth’s oldest rocks.

In South Africa, we also spent time with UW–Madison astronomy professor Eric Wilcots, his graduate student Julie Davis, and their collaborators in remote Sutherland, South Africa, where the Milky Way blazes like fire in the sky, evoking a native Khoisan origin story about the formation of our galaxy.

In Origins you learn the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is a telescope for all of Africa and UW–Madison been part of forging the way forward. Indeed, we helped train Ramotholo Sefako, who is today one of South Africa’s first black astrophysicists. We have built instruments for the telescope, and we are the second largest partner outside the South African government in operating and maintaining SALT (which also affords us commensurate time using it).

Origins is a story about science. But it’s also a story about the people who do it. We are grateful to the many scientists and students, in Madison as well as South Africa, who generously shared their time, knowledge and enthusiasm for this project. And we hope you enjoy following our stories.

You can explore Origins here.