Fossils, Stars & Skinny Scientists… Professor Lee Berger of Wits University is to palaeoanthropology as Pavarotti is to opera…
Words: Sue Adams
Pictures: Sue Adams, Wits University and National Geographic
When an advertisement reads, ‘Skinny people needed’ who would imagine that it’s to do with exploring one of the most exciting fossil finds in the world? But that’s who palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger – on this year’s Time magazine list of The 100 Most Influential People – was looking for to get at fossils hidden in a deep cave in the Cradle of Humankind.
These skinny cavers had to be able to enter Rising Star Cave, in the Bloubank River valley near Krugersdorp, go through a tunnel called Superman’s Crawl – so narrow you had to keep one arm at your side and the other extended above your head, and then climb a jagged wall of rock called Dragon’s Crawl. Sounds like something from a fantasy movie.
“I could not believe my eyes when cavers first showed me a photograph of what they had found on an expedition into this cave,” says Lee, his face still alight with excitement more than two years later. “I realised we had won the palaeo lottery, hit the jackpot.”
Steve Tucker, one of those cavers, has a slightly different memory. “Lee knew there were unexplored caves and had asked Rick Hunter and me, as cavers, to look out for bones. We didn’t really know what we were looking for but when I found a jawbone in 2013 I knew it was something different. We arrived on Lee’s doorstep late one evening with photos. At first he was speechless and then he just started swearing,” says Steve with a grin. “That was when we realised it was big.”
The big find is what is now known as Homo naledi, one of the puzzle pieces Lee Berger has been looking for all his life. There is a huge gap in our fossil knowledge and records, and Lee always wanted to find fossils that would shed light on the mystery of the origin of our Homo genus. Naledi means star in Sotho. The name Homo naledi was chosen to correspond to the name of the Dinaledi chamber of the Rising Star Cave system where the fossil was found.
How old is Homo naledi? It has not been accurately dated yet as there was no volcanic ash and no flowstones around with which to date the bones. So other techniques are being looked at. But Lee Berger says, “No matter the age, it will still have a tremendous impact on the way we look at our evolution.”
On the oldest side of this gap are apelike australopithecines like the famous Lucy found in Ethiopia in 1974. After this comes this gap in fossil knowledge, where a bipedal animal turns into a human being. On the youngest side of the gap is Homo erectus. “The message we are getting from Homo naledi is that of an animal on the cusp of transition from australopithecus to homo,” says Lee Berger.
Big-boned Lee Berger knew he could not get into the cave where the fossils were found, and sprang into action. After advertising for skinny scientists, he chose six out of 60 applicants from around the world, all of them women, and called them his ‘underground astronauts’.
He set up an above-ground command centre at the Rising Star Cave, with science tent and sleeping quarters, and then threaded kilometres of cable down into the bowels so he could stay in communication and watch proceedings. And so the fossil gathering began, with Lee in the tent watching avidly on cameras.
After the initial excavation of a few weeks there were more than 1 500 bones from one square metre of soil. And most exciting, there were bones from at least 15 individuals. This was unheard of in the fossil world.
Back at Wits University the fossil fun continues. The fossils are divided by body parts. There is, among other sections, a ‘tooth booth’, a hand section and a table for skulls. It seems that Homo naledi had a modern hand but with very curved fingers as if for tree climbing. It had large apelike shoulders but human hips and a human-looking skull with, however, a tiny brain.
Among the many mysteries there is a huge one still to answer. Lee Berger is quick to point out that Homo naledi is not human. But he says, “There is a strange anomaly that raises questions about what makes us human. These skeletons appear to have been placed or cached in this cave. There is no sign that they were killed and brought in by predators, there is no sign that they were washed into this cave by river action, and the bones were found on a slope.”
Lee asks, “What is our human uniqueness – why are we different? Why do we know we are going to die? This is the first time we have met another animal that ritually caches its dead over time. We may be alone in that behaviour now but we were not alone in the past.”
Lee also explains that our way of thinking about our human development has changed. “We used to think there was one ladder-like progression. Then we began to talk about a family tree. Now our view of evolution is that it is like a braided stream or a woven braid. Some paths split and then come together again at different times. We can’t draw lines – nature is not about lines.”
Lee has always looked at things a little differently. “I come from rural Georgia in the United States and not from the Ivy League, and I don’t always stick to the rules and do things like others expect me to,” he says, with his signature wide smile. He arrived in Kenya in 1970 as an enthusiastic young explorer palaeoanthropologist and was told in no uncertain terms that there was not a lot of room for someone new.
“But I’ve never minded being told the truth so I looked around. In South Africa there was Robert Broom and Philip Tobias, who were operating on a shoestring with no support. Tobias had a safe full of fossils that had never been really studied and I thought there was potential. There was change happening in South Africa and I decided to jump into these waters feet first.”
Lee made his mark very quickly. “My first big news was finding some teeth at a site called Gladysville in the Cradle area in 1992. It was the first new hominid site in 48 years and the teeth were very rare objects. Then I was given Tobias’ chair in 1996. I was very young – 31 years. Was this a mistake?” Lee asks, and then answers himself, “Yes it promoted me to the highest level of incompetence. But it thrust me into the centre of world science. It put me in charge of the largest undescribed collection of fossils in the world. I was on a heady and fast learning curve.”
Then Lee took another look at the Taung Child (discovered in 1924) and the marks on its skull, and came up with a new idea – that a bird of prey had killed it. Lee explains, “This started a whole new field of science. It was previously thought that only mammals killed humans. The Taung bird of prey idea was revolutionary. Primatologists agreed that birds of prey are huge in evolution and have affected the development of many mammals.” Lee was making waves in the scientific world.
In 2008 Lee and his son Matthew made a really important discovery at Malapa Fossil Site in the Cradle of Humankind – hominin fossils that turned out to be two skeletons about two million years old. They were named Australopithecus sediba and Lee feels they are critical to the origins of Homo. But many prominent worldwide researchers rejected his views. However, as Lee says, “I’m used to criticism and I just continued my research – until the cavers appeared on my doorstep in 2013.”
So is Lee lucky or is it that the harder you work the luckier you get? The more I talk to this dynamo the more I realise he never stops questioning and thinking. “I must have been the last person in the world to find Google Earth,” he says with a laugh. “When I did, none of my old handheld GPS points were accurate but I began to realise what caves looked like from outer space. They just look like narrow fissures and I realised there were more out there than we’d imagined, even in areas where we thought we had discovered everything. Even then I knew this was impossible. I knew the Cradle area so well – but there they were. In March 2008 I found 21 new cave sites. By July 2008 we had 600.”
At Maropeng Visitor Centre, I look at the fossils in the excellent exhibition hall, and bob my way in a boat down the Pathway of Time, and realise it is people like Lee Berger who make million-year-old skeletons come alive through their sheer enthusiasm and excitement. “I get such a kick out of seeing people queue to see Homo naledi,” says Lee.
He may be seen as an iconoclast and a maverick – words that make him laugh – but Lee Berger has certainly taken the dust out of palaeoanthropology, and made riveting the story of these ‘detectives’ painstakingly hunting for ancient bones. As a result South Africa has become quite the rock star of the fossil firmament.
Rocking the Cradle of Humankind
- In 1999, the large 47 000ha Cradle of Humankind north-west of Johannesburg was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.The system of limestone caves is a treasure chest of fossils.
- A major attraction of the Cradle is the Sterkfontein Caves, mined for more than 100 years for limestone but only excavated by palaeoanthropologists since 1936. They are the site of famous discoveries such as Mrs Ples and Little Foot. The tours start above ground and go deep down into the stalactites and stalagmites – so prepare to get muddy and do a little crawling. The tours run every half hour, every day except Monday.
- The interactive exhibition at Maropeng Visitor Centre that focuses on the evolution of mankind is world class.
- Buy the combined ticket to see Sterkfontain and Maropeng and go early. 014 577 9000, www.maropeng.co.za
Where Else to Rock the Cradle
- Hot air ballooning 083 356 2435, www.air-ventures.co.za
- Hiking and mountain biking 082 825 9205, www.hennopstrails.co.za
- Caving. If you really like Sterkfontein Caves there are many more. 082 486 2464, www.wildcaves.co.za