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Dr. Becca Peixotto: Digging Deep

Dr. Becca Peixotto

Dr. Becca Peixotto has spent much of her life and career getting into difficult-to-reach places. As an archaeologist, she looks for clues like bones or artifacts to shed light on how humans of the past lived their everyday lives. Whether crawling through the narrow passages of a cave in South Africa or traversing the remote areas of the Great Dismal Swamp, she seeks out places that humans have dared to go before. If they could get there, so can she.

As a child, Dr. Peixotto loved searching for artifacts at her grandparents’ old farmhouse, but she didn’t know that archaeology could be a career. Though she had a broad range of interests, she started college studying engineering.

“When I took my first archaeology course, it was like a lightbulb turned on!” Dr. Peixotto says. “I could combine all my experiences and interests in science, the outdoors, teaching, and history, to learn more about our collective human past.”

In 2013, Dr. Peixotto got the chance to combine her skill sets to help uncover a new-to-science ancient human relative, Homo naledi. These fossils were excavated from an underground chamber only accessible by a 39-foot chute with an average width of 7.9 inches. In recent history, only a few individuals have been able to access this site. Yet, their findings suggest that our ancient relatives traveled to this cramped, hidden chamber on purpose, possibly using it as a burial site.

Dr. Peixotto has also helped excavate historic settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina. This intensely muggy and buggy environment was home to thousands of Africans and African Americans seeking refuge from slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. As Dr. Peixotto wrote in her article “Wetlands in Defiance,” “The ‘fugitive slaves’ we call Maroons defiantly marshaled their collective knowledge, experience, and social connections to create, in the harsh environment of the wetlands, communities and intricate landscapes of resistance lasting nearly 200 years.”

It was not easy for historic communities or our ancient relatives to reach these out-of-the-way places, and it certainly wasn’t easy for scientists like Dr. Peixotto to investigate them. We think there must be something essentially human about taking on challenges and seeking the unknown. Whatever hurdles or tough questions you might be facing, know that you do so in good company. Perseverance and exploration are part of our human legacy.

“Explore your interests, follow your curiosity,” says Dr. Peixotto. “Everything you’re learning, no matter how different the topics, could one day come together and lead you to a big discovery.”

You can hear more from Dr. Peixotto in our recent Lab@Home Scientist Spotlight program and follow along to build your own archaeological site in a bottle! Check out the replay