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The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Paleoanthropologist shares stories of discovery

Most “take your kid to work” days don’t end in life-changing discoveries, but that was exactly the case when Dr. Lee Berger brought his son, Matthew, to look for fossils in South Africa in 2008.

Berger is a paleoanthropologist known for his discovery of the Homo naledi hominid species. University of Alabama Museums hosted him at the University on Monday to speak about his revolutionary discoveries.

“It was an opportunity to bring to The University of Alabama community an internationally significant researcher,” said Bill Bomar, executive director of University Museums.

Berger made his first big discovery in the now named Malapa cave on Aug. 15, 2008. 

He almost didn’t take the time to look when his nine-year-old son claimed to have found a fossil, but as Dr. Berger put it, “I got five meters away, and I knew that his and my life were going to change forever.” 

A hominid clavicle and jaw were sticking out of the rock his son had found, and further exploration led to the discovery of several more hominin skeletons, which were named a new species, the Australopithecus sediba.

“That started an adventure that I never thought would happen to me in my entire life,” said Berger. “I won the paleoanthropological lottery.”

The discoveries didn’t stop there. In October of 2013 Berger, with the help of two local cavers, made another incredible find in the Rising Star cave. More hominid fossils were discovered, and after the full excavation of the site a total of 15 skeletons were obtained. They were then named the Homo naledi species.

“We had discovered more fossil hominid remains than had been discovered in the entire history of the search for human origins in Southern Africa,” Berger said. “It was incredible.”

In his lecture Berger recounted these experiences, sharing specific memories in vivid deal. The audience remained captivated, and collective gasps and “oohs” of appreciation echoed around the Biology Building auditorium as Berger described the moments of his discoveries.

“I thought it was wonderful. I thought he was a great speaker,” said Emma Harchanko, a sophomore majoring in Public Relations. “It was really cool that his son found the fossil. That just showed it doesn’t matter what age you are– you still have the chance to make a discovery, make an impact on the world around you.”

Berger ended his lecture with a clear message, particularly, he said, meant for the young people present.

The Rising Star was a cave that had already been well-mapped and explored, and the site of the Homo naledi, perhaps the richest fossil hominin site ever discovered, was “less than a mile from the most explored and best known site for those very same objects.”

After reminding the audience of this, Berger then concluded, “This is the greatest age of exploration. This is an age where your generation can take this wonder of technology and search the world, take this wonder of social media and the internet and communicate with every human being on the world… There must be great things to be found. Start looking in your own backyard.”

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