1.2 Cradle of Humankind
Professor Lee Berger has worked for many years making discoveries at the Cradle of Humankind.
- Located just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, the Cradle of Humankind is a site that has produced an incredible number of hominid fossils.
- The Sterkfontein Caves, for instance, contained the famous fossils “Mrs. Ples” (Australopithecus africanus), discovered by Robert Broom and John T. Robinson, and the “Taung Child,” discovered by Raymond Dart.
- Paleoanthropology has been described as one of the hardest scientific fields, as researchers continually search for some of the rarest sought-after objects on the planet.
- And while many of these discoveries (including those by Lee Berger and his team) may seem like “Eureka!” moments, it is crucial to remember that they were preceded by years if not decades of intense scientific research.
Discoveries in paleoanthropology often happen decades apart.
- As a graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Lee Berger made his first major discovery in 1991.
- While working in the Gladysvale excavation site, Prof. Berger discovered two early hominid teeth—the first new hominid fossil site to be discovered in South Africa in 48 years. It would be Berger’s last major discovery for 17 years.
- By 2000, leading scientists in paleoanthropology believed there were no major fossils left to discover in South Africa. After all, this region had been the most studied in the history of the science.
- By 2007, institutional support for continued research in the region began to dry up, and fewer and fewer young scientists entered the field of paleoanthropology.
Modern technology heralded in a new age of discovery.
- In his free time, Professor Berger began using Google Earth’s satellite imagery and compared it to GPS coordinates of promising cave sites he had purchased in the late 1990s.
- He realized that the satellite images did not correspond with the locations of the coordinates precisely—in fact the U.S. government had intentionally added error to the GPS data for international security reasons.
- Working backwards, Professor Berger reversed the added inaccuracies and began to see patterns emerge in the known fossil sites
- Suddenly, dozens of previously unknown sites became immediately apparent in a region that had been explored exhaustively nearly a century.
These unexplored cave sites yielded an amazing find.
- In August of 2008, Lee Berger returned to one of these sites with his son Matthew and a doctoral student.
- Just hours after they began exploring the area, then-nine-year-old Matthew exclaimed that he had found a fossil in a rock, and Lee knew their lives were about to change forever.
- Sticking out of this rock was the fossilized clavicle of an unknown hominid. When Prof. Berger turned the rock over, he found that it also contained a jaw and canine tooth.
- What they had discovered were the remains of a previously unknown species—Berger named it Australopithecus sediba.