The fossil finder extraordinaire who’s rewriting human evolution

by Luke Higgins

Berger 1“I’M PORTRAYED as a maverick, as a cowboy scientist,” says Lee Berger. “What’s so funny is that I’m the one following the rules.”

Even if you haven’t heard of Berger, there’s a good chance you are aware of his work. He is the palaeoanthropologist behind the recent discoveries of not one but two new species of human ancestor. The finds were so remarkable that, by some accounts, they are rewriting the story of human evolution, and Berger, his team and his methods are at the centre of it.

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 14:45 – 15:25
 Earth Theatre
The secrets surrounding human origins are gradually being revealed.

Both the human lineage and our own species originated in Africa, but recent discoveries are revealing the complexity of our origins.

Homo sapiens evolved alongside other kinds of humans, both within Africa and outside our continent of origin, and those other species have left their mark on us in terms of our DNA, and perhaps also our behaviour.

Why we are the only surviving species of human is still an unanswered question. With recent discoveries challenging so many preconceptions about our evolution, this is an exciting time to study our origins.


Chris Stringer, Palaeoanthropologist – Natural History Museum

In 2010, Berger made headlines after he (or, more accurately, his then 9-year-old son) found a trove of hominin bones belonging to what we now know as Australopithecus sediba in the hills north of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime find that most people in his line of work only dream of. If Berger had taken the conventional approach, he might have built the rest of his career on analysing it.

But following convention was not what Berger, an American who made South Africa his home 27 years ago, had in mind. He was convinced that even greater discoveries were waiting, particularly in the ancient caves that riddle the limestone-rich countryside.

He enlisted local help to search them, and hit the jackpot in 2013: two chambers deep inside the Rising Star cave system contained hundreds of bones from another unknown species, which his team dubbed Homo naledi. This time, the story went stratospheric, not just for the scale of the find but for its drama. One of the chambers is at the bottom of a 12-metre vertical passage just 20 centimetres across at some points and Berger recruited a team of very slim, palaeoanthropologist cavers to excavate the site. The fact that all of them were women only heightened the publicity.

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