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Marc Kissel Delivers Alternate Take on Advent Calendar with Fossils

Marc Kissel
Marc Kissel. Credit: Marie Freeman.

Advent calendars spend December counting down the days before the birth of Christ, making them religious by nature.

They’re also tangible. And behind their doors for each day of the countdown lies a nativity story or a tiny piece of chocolate.

AAAS Member Marc Kissel, an assistant professor of anthropology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, has upended that conventional wisdom and tradition with his digital advent calendar that appears on his website and Twitter.

Instead of telling stories about religious figures, Kissel’s calendar, promoted as #AdventOfHominins on Twitter, centers on hominin fossils — fossils of living things “that are on our evolutionary lineage,” Kissel says. According to Kissel, it’s a way to learn about our past and where we come from.

The idea for his calendar came on the first day of advent — December 1 while Kissel scrolled through Twitter and saw non-denominational advent calendars, like one focused on coding.

Kissel couldn’t find a calendar on human evolution though, so as a joke, he quickly threw one entry together on a fossil he’s studied called the Sahelanthropus tchadensis, thinking that using the relatable format of an advent calendar would be the perfect vehicle to educate people about our ancestors.

“I was raised Jewish. I’ve seen (advent calendars) in stores and I knew what they were, but it’s not my direct knowledge base,” Kissel says. “I wanted to make sure there was a clear message that was going on here that wasn’t trying to make it seem like a science versus religions thing, which it totally is not.”

So, he sent the entry around to a couple of colleagues to make sure it wasn’t offensive to Christians. When he received the green light from them, he put it up on his website, and waited for the feedback to roll in.

“I really expected no one to pay attention and suddenly like, it didn’t go viral but a lot of people in my community, including some big names in the paleoanthropology world said, ‘cool,’” Kissel says. “It’s a way for people who aren’t in my field to say, ‘Here’s the cool stuff we know about human origin.’”

His calendar features well-known, extinct ancestors and others who aren’t as famous.

The eighth day of December, for example, highlights the Taung Baby or Child, a 2.8 million-year-old skull of an Australopithecus africanus, the first evidence we have that human evolution began in Africa.

Prior to the three-year-old child’s discovery in 1924 by Raymond Dart in South Africa, the prevailing notion was that human evolution began in Europe. Kissel cites colonialism and racism as probable reasons for this incorrect claim.

“Prominent people rejected (the Taung Baby) and said it’s not real because (human evolution is) something that’s happened in Europe,” Kissel says. “They thought it had to be European because that’s where the white people lived.”

It took years for Dart to show that the baby, and its skull, was part of our evolutionary lineage and walked on two legs, Kissel says. The fossil represented a paradigm shift that overturned the idea of human evolution started in Europe, and its discovery should remind scientists to be keep their assumptions in check, Kissel says.

Kissel’s calendar wouldn’t be complete without Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, who is featured on December 7. Lucy, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, is roughly 3.18 millions old, was 3.5 feet tall, walked upright, and was named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Kissel’s December 6 entry centers on a 3.3 million-year-old foot fossil found in Ethiopia. The foot belonged to a child, now called “Selam,” who was from a species that represented some of human’s earliest ancestors—the Australopithecus afarensis species. The foot of young Selam shows us that while Selam walked upright, the child also spent a lot of time in trees and clinging to an adult. This information sheds light on what life was like as a juvenile way back when, Kissel says.

A lot of work goes into Kissel’s entries. On average, he spends between two and three hours writing up each daily entry, but he’s getting faster as time goes on.

Once he picks a fossil to feature, he looks up several scientific papers that were written about it, reads them and picks out a few interesting factoids about the fossil. Then he writes notes to himself, looks for images, and maps the location of the country it was found. Then, he spends time “translating” the scientific language into laymen’s terms, writing the entries in a concise way non-scientists can understand. 

Kissel, who teaches three classes at Appalachian State to aspiring anthropologists, didn’t realize himself anthropology was a study he could pursue until he went to college at New York University and took a class on science journalism. He could see his college professor loved her job and her enthusiasm was contagious, so he decided to pursue anthropology and focus on science outreach. His calendar represents an extension of that mission.

He wants kids to recognize they can go online and print out a fossil on a 3D printer, hold it in their hand, and ask the same kinds of questions scientists do. Shared humanity, he says, is what makes us human.

“Our opponents are racists and sexists and we have a way to push back against the narrative that we’re all very different, when really we’re all similar,” Kissel says.