In 2008, the 9-year-old son of paleoanthropologist Lee Berger discovered a fossil that landed Berger’s team on the covers of the journal Science, of Scientific American, and on the front pages of newspapers including The New York Times. Berger and his son, Matthew, discovered a clavicle bone in Johannesburg, South Africa that belonged to an entirely new species of human, which Berger and his colleagues named Australopithicus Sediba. Berger’s team then went on to find two skulls, a right hand, a foot and a pelvis, all exceptionally well preserved.
Berger, with co-author Marc Aronson, has penned a book for children that describes the discovery, Berger’s career path, and how A. sediba fits into the story of human evolution. Though the book is recommended for ages 10 and up, I read it to my 6-year-old, who got the main gist and enjoyed the lifelike illustrations of early human ancestors like Lucy. For me, the book was an essential reminder of how much the field has changed. In high school, my generation was taught that human evolution proceeded in a straight line from, as Aronson writes, chimps, to chimpish animals that walked upright, to animals with larger brains that walked on two legs like Homo habilis, to humans, “so many different and puzzling branches of ancestors have been found that no one can say for sure which led to what.” As he explains, “We now believe that nature tried all sorts of experiments in the millions of years during which troops of animals that walked upright on two feet lived in Africa.”
“Skull in the Rock” is a great way to introduce young kids to evolution and to deepen older kids’ understanding of how humans came to be.
Reprinted with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins by Lee R. Berger and Marc Aronson. Copyright ©2012 Lee R. Berger and Aronson & Glenn LLC.
Chapter One: The First Bone
“Dad, I’ve found a fossil.” Nine-year-old Matthew Berger was fossil hunting with his dad when he stumbled and spied a brown rock with a thin yellow bone stuck in it. Matthew was lucky: His father is Professor Lee Berger, a scientist who has devoted his life to finding the remains of our ancient ancestors. They had often gone exploring together in the brown limestone hills and scraggly trees just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. So many important fossils have been found in this area that it is called the Cradle of Humankind and is protected by the government and listed as a World Heritage Site.
Though only half an hour from one of the largest cities in Africa, the Cradle belongs to animals—visitors are watched by troops of baboons, dodged by scampering warthogs, measured by soaring eagles. The Bergers always bring their Rhodesian ridgebacks with them in their customized Jeep—since leopards and other predators prowl nearby, and the dogs smell and sense them in time to give warning. On this pleasant August morning in 2008, Matthew called out to his dad—and opened a door two million years back in time.
Some day, Matthew’s words may be famous, the way we honor “What hath God wrought?” the first telegraph message sent in 1844, or “Mr. Watson, come here” the first telephone call 32 years later. What he found was that important. But that is not what his dad first thought. Every other time they had gone out together, Matthew found the remains of ancient antelopes—fossils that are quite common in the area. As Dr. Berger came closer, Matthew could tell that his dad assumed it was just another old antelope and was trying to be nice by pretending to be interested. That is exactly what Dr. Berger was thinking until he was about fifteen feet (4.6 m) from his son, and could focus.
Right then, just at that precise moment, he froze. His world went black and white. Time stopped. Matthew was holding a gift from the past so precious almost nothing like it had ever been found. And the one person in the world who knew that for sure was Dr. Lee Berger. For the fossil was a clavicle, the thin connecting bone across the shoulder that humans and our ancestors share—and that athletes in contact sports sometimes break. The bone is so fragile, not one of the famous skeletons of prehumans still has a complete one. Yet when he was a graduate student, Dr. Berger had written his Ph.D. thesis on just that bone and three others that would become important in this story, the bones that make up the upper arm.
Because Matthew had trained his eyes, he recognized a fossil. Because his father had studied that part of the body, he realized the treasure in his son’s hands. For Dr. Berger, it would have been enough to find that one special bone. But the clavicle was just the beginning. It was the rabbit hole beckoning Alice, the wardrobe flung open to Narnia, the first clue to what is becoming an entirely new way of understanding human evolution.
It is easy to envy the Bergers, to wish you or I had the chance to find the bone, which turned out to be part of a nearly complete skeleton of an entirely new species (Australopithecus sediba) previously unknown to science. But as Dr. Berger says, that is getting it totally wrong. Because the most important thing about the find is the doors it opens for the next new discovery. Every door leads somewhere, even those that seem closed—that is what Dr. Berger’s own life story told him.
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX