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Lee Berger’s Almost Human “rollicks along like an adventure story,” writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Sunday Times

Almost HumanAlmost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo Naledi
Lee Berger and John Hawks (Jonathan Ball Publishers, R295)

Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger probably wouldn’t dispute his reputation as a controversial figure – there are those who consider him a publicity-seeker, prone to shoot from the hip when it comes to announcing his discoveries. Be that as it may, he is a born storyteller and populariser of his field.

Berger and John Hawks, who is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have collaborated on this book, which covers more than its subtitle suggests. It starts with Berger’s nine-year-old son, Matthew, out with his father and a colleague on a fossil hunt in 2008 at Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind, turning over a rock to discover an ancient, fossilised collarbone.

That turned out to be Australopithecus sediba, a previously unknown hominin (humans, their early ancestors and related primate species) who walked upright as we do, but displayed many of the characteristics of an ape.

Then, five years after the discovery of A. sediba, Berger decided to have another look at the area around Malapa, suspecting the existence of unmapped caves. So he recruited some skinny amateur cavers (underground passages can be claustrophobically narrow), and a search began. Then, having squeezed through an 18cm gap in the Rising Star cave system, 40m underground, they hit the jackpot – a cave with hominin fossils littering the floor. Homo naledi had been discovered.

Berger is too big to wriggle into the cave – but he’s always up for a challenge. Using Facebook, he advertised for archaeologists and palaeontologists who had caving experience and were small and thin. His assistant was soon alarmed by the messages that poured in for him from women giving their vital statistics. Skype interviews were set up, National Geographic agreed to take the expedition live on social media, and the time-honoured, slow and secretive methodology of the profession was turned on its head.

It makes for a riveting read. Berger’s “underground astronauts” did their job. Even for those of us who don’t know our Australopithecus from our Homo, it rollicks along like an adventure story. There is still debate, of course, about exactly who and what H. naledi was and how the fossils got into the cave, but Berger and Hawks bring these dry bones to exuberant life.

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