PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Bringing ancient stories to life
Dinosaurs are cool, but no hominids please?

Marina Joubert   Stellenbosch University

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan  

Shirona Patel  

Anthony Lelliott  

South Africa's rich palaeontological heritage puts the country in a world-leading position this research field and presents unparalleled opportunities for public communication and engagement. This panel discussion will present three case studies to contrast the challenges in communicating about human ancestors vs dinosaurs.

The announcement of the Homo naledi fossils (from the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site), a collection of 15 individuals and 1 500 fossils, described as a new species of human relative by Professor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand and his team, made international headlines in September 2015.

The research demonstrated that Homo naledi intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously thought limited to humans. A global campaign was launched on a very limited budget; the strategy relied on the combination of a great story, magnificent story-tellers, adoption of the principles of open access and the use of new technologies to ensure its success. It was also met with fierce criticism from some quarters. The planning, challenges, successes and impact of this campaign will be presented and discussed.

In 2013, a questionnaire was administered to 810 members of the general public visiting the Cradle of Humankind. The survey included questions on why they visited the site and whether their visit made them think differently. Visitors' impressions of their visit, and the 'take home' messages they acquired will be discussed.
Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, a dinosaur palaeontologist, will reflect on engaging public audiences via dinosaur discoveries. While people are mostly eager to learn about these amazing creatures that dominated our planet for about 160 million years, many grapple with understanding the immense scale of geological time and the process of evolution. Social inequality and negative perceptions and stereotypes around science, as well as beliefs about who "can or cannot do" science, are further major obstacles.

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