This Incredible Paleontologist Has Been Missing for Decades

Illustration for article titled This Incredible Paleontologist Has Been Missing for Decades

The paleontologist known only as Yusra has been missing since the 1940s. And yet she's responsible for finding one of the world's most important early human fossils. We're still trying to piece together what happened to her.

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Over at Trowelblazers, a site devoted the history of women paleontologists, geologists, and archaeologists, there's a fascinating story about Yusra (pictured at left, with Dorothy Garrod).

Writes paleobiologist Tori Herridge:

Yusra was one of the many women from the villages of Ljsim and Jeba in the Wady el-Mughara region of Palestine who became part of Dorothy Garrod's excavation team. Yusra was the most expert, her work deeply valued by Garrod. She stayed with the project through its full six-years, acting as excavation fore(wo)man – her trained eyes alert to stone tool and bone fragments.

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Garrod encouraged Yusra to come study at Cambridge, and Yusra seemed eager to do it. In 1932, she found the famous Tabun-1 Neanderthal skull. Roughly 100,000 years old, it was an incredible find because most of the cranium and some of the facial features were intact. As Herridge notes, this would have been a career-making discovery for any other paleontologist. But for Yusra, a Palestinian woman without a college degree, it wasn't even enough for history to remember her last name:

Excavating at et-Tabun, alongside Jacquetta Hawkes, Yusra spotted a tooth. That tooth led to a crushed skull – one of the most important human fossils ever found.

Discoveries like hers are a once-in-a-career (and often career-making) event for a palaeontologist – just thinking about it makes my heart race.

Despite this, Yusra never made it to Cambridge. History intervened. Ljsim and Jeba were destroyed in 1948, and – as of 2010 – the Palestinian component of Garrod's team untraceable. I haven't even been able to discover her surname.

It's unclear what happened to Yusra, and it's tragic that we know so little about this citizen scientist who changed the way we understand human history.

Read more at Trowelblazers

Image via Dorothy Garrod Archive, Pitt Rivers Museum

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DISCUSSION

Not to run down her accomplishments and skills, Annalee, but is it justifiable to call her a palaeontologist? She didn't assist with the academic side of her discoveries - the dating, description, classification etc. - things that would be required of a palaeontologist, in addition to actually finding the fossils, and getting them out. Persistence and a good eye are essential for a good field person, but they're only part of being a palaeontologist. Think of Mary Anning - great field person, but did not do anything with her fossils once she'd found and excavated them - she didn't have the education (or money). Yusra may have found her calling if she'd made it to Cambridge, and we'd be remembering her as a palaeontologist, but she never got that finishing.

Palaeoanthropologists working in East Africa rely heavily upon experienced local field assistants, many of whom have worked on particular sites with particular palaeoanthropologists for years or decades. But these guys aren't called palaeontologists unless they go the academic route and get a postgraduate degree. Some have - can't think of names at the moment, but there are African field techs from both Johansen's and the Leakeys' permanent field crews who have gone on from being field assistants to graduate school and them returned to their home countries and established research programs of their own. Then they have a real advantage in having extensive field experience, topped off with academic credentials.