This first-person narrative about an archaeological discovery is rewriting the story of human evolution. A story of defiance and determination by a controversial scientist, this is Lee Berger's own take on finding Homo naledi, an all-new species on the human family tree and one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century.
In 2013, Berger, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, caught wind of a cache of bones in a hard-to-reach underground cave in South Africa. He put out a call around the world for petite collaborators—men and women small and adventurous enough to be able to squeeze through 8-inch tunnels to reach a sunless cave 40 feet underground. With this team of "underground astronauts," Berger made the discovery of a lifetime: hundreds of prehistoric bones, including entire skeletons of at least 15 individuals, all perhaps two million years old. Their features combined those of known prehominids like Lucy, the famousAustralopithecus, with those more human than anything ever before seen in prehistoric remains. Berger's team had discovered an all new species, and they called it Homo naledi.
The cave quickly proved to be the richest prehominid site ever discovered, full of implications that shake the very foundation of how we define what makes us human. Did this species come before, during, or after the emergence of Homo sapiens on our evolutionary tree? How did the cave come to contain nothing but the remains of these individuals? Did they bury their dead? If so, they must have had a level of self-knowledge, including an awareness of death. And yet those are the very characteristics used to define what makes us human. Did an equally advanced species inhabit Earth with us, or before us? Berger does not hesitate to address all these questions.
Berger is a charming and controversial figure, and some colleagues question his interpretation of this and other finds. But in these pages, this charismatic and visionary paleontologist counters their arguments and tells his personal story: a rich and readable narrative about science, exploration, and what it means to be human.
Berger, a paleoanthropologist at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, reports on his nearly three decades of work in South Africa with an excursion to the Micronesian island of Palau and the surprising discoveries he and colleagues have made about early hominins. In short chapters that feature reconstructed dialogue and somewhat tiresome prose, Berger relates how he used Google Earth as a geological aid to scour the South Africa and uncover natural chambers and new fossil sites. In 2008, his team began excavating one of these sites, a cave outside of Johannesburg, and found two partial skeletons of a woman and child who represented a new species, Australopithecus sediba. Five years later, two cavers discovered another cache of bones. Berger led another team there to find some 1,300 human fossils, including those of a new hominin species, Homo naledi. Berger may have a sharp eye for spotting hominin remains in ancient breccia, but he's less skilled as a writer and often interrupts his main story with human-interest anecdotes and asides on the history of paleoanthropology. Furthermore, the book's crucial final chapter remains embargoed until publication. Berger's finds are certainly interesting, and the H. naledi discovery is potentially groundbreaking, but the book leaves much to be desired.
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Dr. Berger presents the rare combination of scientific exploration and study with captivating story telling. I might just pick this up and start again now.