Jeff Jardine

MJC anthropologist feels rock star adoration at lecture

Modesto Junior College professor of anthropology Debra Bolter, in her office last month, shows her current research project, the bones and skull of a juvenile male primate from the Malapa cave in the same Cradle of Life region in South Africa where the Rising Star site is located. Bolter was called in to the dig because of her expertise in juvenile primate bones.
Modesto Junior College professor of anthropology Debra Bolter, in her office last month, shows her current research project, the bones and skull of a juvenile male primate from the Malapa cave in the same Cradle of Life region in South Africa where the Rising Star site is located. Bolter was called in to the dig because of her expertise in juvenile primate bones. naustin@modbee.com

Debi Bolter became a rock star Friday night. OK, maybe more of a bone star, but a star nonetheless.

She’s the Modesto Junior College anthropology professor summoned to be part of the team in 2014 that cataloged and categorized more than 1,550 bones and teeth from the remains of at least 15 people discovered two years ago in a cave in South Africa. The group identified a new species of human, called Homo naledi, and their discoveries made the cover of this month’s National Geographic. Her specialty is determining the ages of the individuals, from infant to adolescent to adult. The scientists surmise naledi lived 2 to 3 million years ago and used the cave as a burial ground for their dead.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin in September wrote about Bolter’s work with the group and her vow of silence about the more in-depth findings that she had to keep until the publication of papers in anthropology journals.

“I couldn’t even breathe the name naledi,” Bolter said.

It’s an amazing find. They determined these primates walked upright and had brains larger than chimpanzees’, concluding they are close to Homo erectus in the evolutionary progression. It’s also impressive that Bolter, a Sonora High grad now earning a place among the world’s most respected anthropologists, could present her findings on her home turf. She had help from MJC computer graphics professor Joel Hagen, whose work enabled students and staff on the school’s 3DNaledi Project to replicate bones, jaws and teeth from images of the originals found in the Rising Star Cave.

Indeed, Bolter’s work on the project goes beyond personal achievement. It also earns kudos for the school’s science department to have one of their own invited to be part of a worldwide breakthrough project.

Her 90-minute lecture on MJC’s West Campus also impressed because on a night when heartthrob actor Rob Lowe appeared at the Gallo Center for the Arts to talk about his career and support for cancer survivors, and thousands of people attended high school football games throughout the city, more than 400 people attended a science lecture in west Modesto. In fact, Modesto Area Partners in Science, which organized the event, moved it from the 200-seat room in the school’s Science Community Center to the Mary Stuart Rogers Student Learning Center to accommodate the big crowd.

Modesto and the Valley in general often take a beating for our perceived lack of arts and culture, and lower economic scale. Those come mostly from Bay Area types who pay $3,600 a month in rent for an apartment and the self-anointed right to look down upon us in sheer scorn. If that makes them feel better about themselves (and it apparently does), so be it. Not only by the sheer number of people who attended but also by those who prepared by reading up on her work, Friday night’s lecture showed a side of Modesto its detractors might not believe exists. Bolter’s presentation was first-rate, and so were the questions from the audience afterward.

“The depth and range was great,” she said. “They were really paying attention to the detail of the lecture.”

What surprised her about the evening? That no one questioned or challenged the science that pegged Homo naledi’s time on earth at 2 to 3 million years ago. Bible purists believe God created the world roughly 6,000 years ago.

“We’re fairly conservative as a group here in the Valley,” Bolter said.

The event also served as a reminder of the value of an accomplished lecturer and an intriguing topic. Long before the invention of closed-circuit television, the Internet and webinars, scientists routinely unveiled their findings during lectures in front of live audiences similar to what Bolter drew Friday night. A great presenter could motivate the next generation of scientists. The crowd included a mix of MJC instructors and staff, students and people with a general interest in a discovery that, as National Geographic’s headline reads, “ ... Changes the Human Story. But How?”

Bolter’s work on that project led to another corroboration and no doubt others in the future. Friday night’s lecture represented the local debut of Homo naledi and Bolter’s opportunity to soak up some well-deserved credit.

“I had a couple of people ask me for my autograph and pose for pictures,” she said.

As a rock star, or bone star in this case, should.

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