Scientist Shares Historic Discovery

Dr. Lee Berger, a research professor of paleoanthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, spoke to a group of Middle Schoolers over Zoom about his team’s recent groundbreaking discovery of early human fossils. Dr. Berger and his team found the first remains of a Homo naledi child, the latest find in a series of groundbreaking discoveries.
 
Dr. Berger told the students the child lived between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, and that the researchers nicknamed the remains “Leti.” The skeletal fragments were found in the Rising Star cave system located in the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Africa. Because of the cave's remote location, scientists believe that, even hundreds of thousands of years ago, early humans ritually buried their dead.

The cave chamber in South Africa is only accessible through narrow passageways, requiring Dr. Berger’s team to seek out “skinny scientists.” Several of these explorers joined the expedition by responding to open requests on Facebook.  
 
“Recruiting the scientists on Facebook was an interesting way to do research,” said George Brown ’29, who took part in the Zoom conversation.
 
For the past nine years, Dr. Berger has been a frequent guest at St. Mark’s and has forged an ongoing friendship with John Mead, Eugene McDermott Master Teaching Chair in Science. Dr. Berger brought several of his team members to campus shortly after the discovery of Homo naledi was announced. In 2017, during a Skype call from inside the Rising Star Cave, one of the excavators uncovered a rib fragment while Dr. Berger was answering a Marksman’s question. Mr. Mead has also visited Dr. Berger in South Africa, which provided him the opportunity to experience the fascinating labs and dig sites first-hand and to bring back those insights to the classroom and beyond through his National Geographic blog
 
“I’m particularly excited that our students have the opportunity to interact with a scientist of Dr. Berger’s stature because it allows our boys to become more comfortable in their interactions not only with adults but with adults who are successful in significant ways,” said Mr. Mead. “Throughout the presentation, Dr. Berger hinted at papers that would be coming out over the course of the next year as well as sharing the news of a new cave discovery close to the Rising Star Cave that has a species that is not Australopithecus sediba or Homo naledi. In other words, we are basically on the ground floor of yet another significant discovery in the field of human origins.”
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    • Dr. Berger speaks on campus in 2017

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