By Mila de Villiers, @mila_se_kind
Research Professor in Human Origins at Wits University, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, peer-reviewed paleoanthropologist, and author of Almost Human: The astonishing tale of Homo naledi (co-written with John Hawks), Lee Berger, recently spoke to us via Skype (from an excavation site at Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers, nogal) about his book – an account of the discovery of the hominid species, Homo naledi; Australopithecus sediba as the origin of the X-Men; his estrangement from Phillip Tobias; writing for non-scientific audiences; and local band Satanic Dagga Orgy’s ode to Homo naledi…
First things first: your interest in archaeology was sparked at a young age when, as a child growing up in rural Georgia, you’d spend hours in the outdoors, looking for (and finding) artifacts. Do you have any advice for aspiring archaeologists or paleoanthropologists wishing to discover/rummage, yet are confined to suburbs or cities?
There are things to be found everywhere – history is all around us and the world, even urban areas and the suburbs are filled with archaeological artifacts from the past that give clues to what came before. Also, our cities are full of geology as they are of course built on and around it! It’s great to learn and explore the heritage of the area you live in as well as it’s geological heritage. One never knows as the next “big” discovery could be in one’s own backyard!
Almost Human reads surprisingly easy – and funny – for a book with a highly scientific premise. Did you struggle to maintain an accessible writing style for the hoi polloi? (And by no means am I excluding myself here).
Well, science can seem complex and overwhelming for many, but we were trying to use a style that let the specialist reader as well as the non-specialist reader enjoy the book and follow our scientific journey. We therefore tried to use understandable language and as little “jargon” as possible, only using it where it was necessary to define a complex term or meaning. Both John and I communicate widely to the public and so perhaps the writing style you note follows our speaking styles.
Throughout the final chapters of the book you often mention how much there still is to learn about Homo naledi and that it’s very likely that there are more early hominim species which are yet to be discovered. The skeletal material you recently came across in the Lesedi Chamber shares similarities with Homo naledi and adds to this statement. What can/does this new discovery tell us about human evolution in Africa?
I think the clear picture that has come from both the discovery of Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi is that the story of human evolution is not a simple, linear, straightforward one but that ours is a complex history. Naledi and sediba show us that there is more to be found – it’s clear that we don’t really know their ancestral history and the few fossils of other species found across Africa don’t help us much with interpreting where they fit in our family tree – and that’s exciting. We currently are back in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers and making new discoveries – particularly exciting is we seem to have strong evidence that Homo naledi did indeed come down the narrow chute the way our “underground astronauts” come – and that is wonderful and hard to explain – but it’s exciting!
Your “Underground Astronauts” – Marina Elliott, Elen Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, K. Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter, Hannah Morris, and Becca Peixotto – are all women. This dispels the myth of science being a male-dominated field. Can you elaborate on this statement within a South African context? Christa Kuljian specifically comes to mind…
I am right now watching four of these heroic women scientists working underground on our cameras in the command centre. Our field was dominated by men traditionally, but there is a worldwide trend that is shifting towards more women in the natural sciences and our field is no different and we are seeing this trend in South Africa as well. But what I think is most important about these underground astronauts is that they are demonstrating that the place for women in these sciences is not just in the lab, but also at the cutting edge of extreme exploration and adventure and very often these women are better suited physically and mentally for these difficult and often dangerous endeavours. They really are an inspiration.
You write candidly about your growing difference of opinions with prominent paleoanthropologists Phillip Tobias and Ronald Clarke. How has your account of your academic estrangement from Profs Tobias and Clarke been received by the scientific community, and readers at large?
Well, my estrangement with Phillip Tobias occurred as perhaps a natural progression of our relationship. He was like a father to me and sometimes when fathers and sons are working in the same area, they can clash. He and I reconciled later and he was very engaged and enjoyed the sediba years. Ron Clarke and my history is a complex one. Phillip and the University were promoting this young upstart (perhaps in his eyes) ahead of him. A lot of that tension I think was driven from insecurity of position. Palaeoanthropology is a competitive field with, until recently, few fossils and “fights” over the perceived more important ones are nothing new. I think though that with sediba and naledi and our approach to open access some of this tension has lessened. There is, though, still a generation that was brought up behaving in a very negatively competitive way that exists, but they are fewer and the fossils are certainly more plentiful!
I must admit that I didn’t know you and Phillip Tobias had such a strong bond…
He was my Ph.D. supervisor and then promoted me to take over his position in 1996. He and I were very close. It was the “way” Little Foot was discovered, hidden and then handled that caused the fissure. But like I said, I think that can be quite normal in such situations.
Have you received any personal ‘backlash’ from readers or scientists (including your colleagues, perhaps) regarding the candid account of your estrangement?
And no, not at all! You’re the first person to bring it up!
I think most scientists and “insiders” know/knew the story and it was a long time ago.
Your search for assistants to aid you in your expedition was unique in that you created a Facebook-post urging experienced scientists and intrepid cavers across the globe to apply for the task. Similarly, your discoveries at the Rising Star cave system were live streamed on social media platforms. (Those hashtags!) Can we expect an increase in scientific findings being made more and/or immediately accessible to the public, say via social media, as opposed to waiting until they’ve been published in journals after months of research and deliberation?
Okay, so if you turn on your social media feed right now you will notice we are bringing science “live” to the world through technology and social media. We are, however, doing all of our science the good old fashioned way – in peer reviewed journals. In fact and as an example there have been more than 600 pages of peer reviewed journal articles on naledi since we announced the new species. While some very prominent individuals (Bill Kimbel, Tim White and Bernard Wood to name the most vocal) have argued that we are somehow doing the science in front of the public – and they feel this is a bad thing – it’s simply not true. They are in fact creating a Quixote-esque windmill of misinformation to tilt at. We are in fact the traditionalists, they are publishing their criticisms in non-peer reviewed venues. It’s ironic and a form of “peer evasion” on their part.
Lastly – are you aware that the Joburg-based band Satanic Dagga Orgy have a song titled ‘Homo for Naledi’?
I am and we were laughingly playing the song just this morning! I think it might have even had it’s debut in the Dinaledi chamber as Elen just tweeted from the chamber about it! We all quite enjoy seeing our science become part of the popular and public sphere. It means more people hear about science and maybe it inspired people to dig a little deeper. I don’t know if you saw but Marvel Comics has sediba as the origin of the X-Men now! (which for a bunch of science nerds is very cool) – just google ‘Australopithecus sediba marvel X-Men’ for the pages.
(I did. Look what I found.)
- Almost Human by Lee Berger
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