Paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence Lee Berger and a large team of scientists recently announced the discovery of what is being interpreted as graves or burials made by Homo naledi – a primitive species of human ancestry – deep in the underground chambers of the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. This may be the first time in history anyone has ever seen or claimed the discovery of intentional burials by a non-human species.
“Burial and mortuary practices of this nature are only associated with large brain hominids and really only truly associated with Homo sapiens. So this is a dramatic claim. When you add that this is occurring likely 150,000 years before we see that sort of behavior, or we've seen it in the archaeological record for humans, it's an extraordinary claim,” Berger shares of these latest developments. “It seems like it will only be the beginning of all this.”
With this announcement, he hopes to engage the greater scientific community—and the world—to consider the implications on our understanding of the origins of the human species.
As an award-winning paleoanthropologist, Berger’s discoveries over his career have been recognized as among the most important scientific discoveries of the decade – in 2019, the Smithsonian magazine honored him as part of their top 10.
So, where did it all begin for Berger?
Early footsteps in paleoanthropology
“I grew up in rural Georgia in a small town called Sylvania, and I didn't really know that there were careers in this direction, even though my father was a frustrated geologist.”
After beginning his studies in pre-law and realizing his dislike for the subject, Berger took electives in geology and archaeology which sparked his initial interest.
“I found paleoanthropology, ended up in Africa at trailblazing scientist Richard Leakey's Koobi Fora field site, there with Harvard University, found my first hominid fragment … and was hooked,” Berger remembers. “We [John Kimengich and Berger] spent the morning walking over those fantastic outcrops and he taught me how to see the fossils in the area. At about 11 o'clock in the morning as we were walking back to the Land Rover (we were not more than 100 meters from it), I looked down and saw a tiny fragment of a limb bone that I recognized as a piece of a hominid femur shaft.”
On his first day, Berger made a groundbreaking discovery.
Another early discovery in 1992 of two hominid teeth in South Africa gained attention from National Geographic magazine, beginning his association with the National Geographic Society. He received his first grant in 1996 for excavating and preserving early Homo sapiens footprints at Saldanha Bay in South Africa.
Pushing through years of discovery drought and disappointment
It may seem as though Berger’s fieldwork has been smooth sailing, but his time as a paleoanthropologist has not been without difficulties. After his early successes, he wouldn’t see another major discovery for well over a decade. “Seventeen years of continuing looking. I had a university close my exploration institute down because there were scientists who were advising them that there was nothing left to find.”
What pushed him through? “I didn’t believe them,” Berger boldly recounts.
“It was December of 2007, and I was at one of the lowest points of my life. They closed my research institute down. They were going to move towards a new type of analysis that was going to use computers and imaging to only analyze existing fossils rather than look for more because exploration was dead.”
Then Berger discovered a new tool: Google Earth.
An unexpected source propels Berger’s work further
With this new technology, Berger began to locate and build a database of excavation sites. In 2008, he found hundreds of sites that scientists had missed. “I thought that was going to be my greatest contribution, this resource, if you will, of potential,” he recounts.
That year, he decided to go back into the area around Gladysvale, South Africa — the site where his early discovery of the two teeth was made. On this trip, he was accompanied by his 9-year-old son Matthew.
“Matt and my dog Tau ran off into the wilderness, and a minute or two later I heard him say, ’Dad, I found a fossil!’ I knew that our lives were going to change forever because there was this clavicle (which I'd done my Ph.D. on), one of the rarest bones in the entire hominin fossil record, sticking out the side of this rock. And when I turned it over there was evidence that there was a skeleton in there.”
Berger and his son had discovered two remarkably well-preserved, two-million-year-old fossils of an adult female and young male, known as Australopithecus sediba, a previously unknown species of ape-like creatures that may have been a direct ancestor of modern humans.
Up until that day, there were only (about) seven partial early hominid skeletons ever found, and two of those were discovered by Berger’s role models and mentors, paleoanthropologist icons Don Johanson and Richard Leakey.
Overnight, Lee Berger joined their ultra-elite club. He believes the skeletons found on the Malapa site in South Africa could be the “Rosetta Stone that unlocks our understanding of the genus Homo” and may redesign the human family tree.
Another milestone discovery
Five years later, in the Rising Star cave system, Berger discovered another piece of human history: Homo naledi. “I had sent out these cavers to look for fossil sites. And when Steve, Tucker, and Pedro brought me the computer and opened it up that evening in September, I was staggered. I was looking at something that shouldn't exist. I could see it was a primitive hominid, but it was lying on the floor of a cave in the dirt and it shouldn't exist. And then it settled in—the extreme nature of the thing.”
Berger contacted National Geographic’s then-Chief Science and Exploration Officer Terry Garcia, showed him this discovery, and said his famous words that to this day are remembered across headquarters: “If you’re ever going to believe in me, believe in me right now.”
“It was this discovery that launched the Rising Star Expedition, which became this extraordinary historical moment of discovery of the largest assemblage of ancient human relative fossils in all of history, that has just continued to give to us,” Berger shares.
The death of human exceptionalism, and hope for the future
How does Berger begin to process and understand the significance of these discoveries? He describes a concept he calls “the death of human exceptionalism.”
“One of the things about Homo naledi that has particularly struck me is that we are beginning to see the emerging recognition that the concept of human exceptionalism is so widespread and entrenched in us we don't really critically look at ourselves. We see ourselves as exceptional and separate from the world.”
It’s in this way that Berger explains the height of human arrogance and the danger in how “we’ve abused the world in doing that—the animal world, the planet—because that attitude has given us dominion over the world.”
Berger hopes that by unlocking this understanding of our human ancestors, we have an opportunity to connect deeper with ourselves.
He now leads National Geographic’s Rising Star project, named for the cave system and fossil site in southern Africa where he conducts his research. Teams under his leadership have recovered more individual hominid remains in sub-equatorial Africa over the last decade than were recovered in the previous 90 years.
A National Geographic documentary Dawn of Humanity with PBS Nova followed Berger’s prolific work including his discovery of Homo naledi and the Rising Star Expedition. In 2015, it was nominated for an Emmy.
"I believe we're living in the greatest age of exploration ever," shares Berger. “We're not just going places and seeing things, we're understanding things now for the first time. That's true discovery. It's not just observation, it's understanding—and that's an exciting time to be an Explorer.”
His advice for others to follow in his footsteps? “Seek the anomaly and approach everywhere as if you're a child. Never assume you have seen a place, even if you've been there many times. One of the things that we do as humans is we think we have places that are familiar or we think we know. You actually have to fight against that if you want to really discover things because there are discoveries to be made everywhere, in your own backyard, every yard, that others haven't seen. Well, others may have seen but they haven't recognized.”
Berger won the first National Geographic Society Research and Exploration Prize in 1997. He was named the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year in 2016 and two years later, became an Explorer at Large. In 2016 he was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. This year, Berger became a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, and his book and documentary show, entitled “Cave of Bones,” was released.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Raquel Fereshetian is a Digital and Social Content Producer for the National Geographic Society. She has a strong passion for work that merges storytelling, creativity, and the wonder of our world, and is moved by a desire to use her vision to impact others in significant and meaningful ways.