Professor Lee Berger has made what has been hailed as the most important archaeological discoveries in recent history—two new species of human ancestors.
In 2008—with the help of his curious nine-year-old son—Berger discovered two remarkably well-preserved, two-million-year-old fossils of an adult female and young male, which he named Australopithecus sediba. The fossils of this previously unknown species of ape-like creatures reveal what may be one of humankind’s oldest ancestors.
Then, in 2013, guided by a pair of local cavers, Berger discovered ancient fossils just outside Johannesburg, deep inside the Rising Star cave, through a passage so dangerously narrow that Berger had to recruit small cavers to access them. There, 30 meters underground, in the Cradle of Humanity World Heritage site, Berger’s team uncovered more than 1,550 fossil elements, representing an unprecedented 15 individuals in what they believe to be a burial site. He named the new species Homo naledi.
“We’ve found a most remarkable creature,” says Berger. This new species appears to have intentionally deposited the bodies of its dead in the remote chamber—a behavior previously thought to be limited to humans. This new discovery is the single largest fossil hominin find in Africa to date. It shakes up our understanding of the human family tree and has the potential to transform understanding of human evolution.
Berger, an Eagle Scout and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, is the Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science in the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
It is no exaggeration to say that paleoanthropologist Lee Berger’s 2013 discovery of Homo naledi signaled a profound shift in our understanding of human evolution. In a secret chamber of the remote Rising Star cave system near Johannesburg, South Africa, a massive collection of bones was discovered by his explorers assisted by recreational cavers. So he rapidly assembled a team of “underground astronauts” with caving experience, scientific backgrounds, and the kind of physique that could fit in a chute averaging 7.9 inches in width. What they found suggested something unprecedented—ritual burial, a practice long thought to be unique to Homo sapiens. And that was just the beginning.
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