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If you like Lee Berger's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Lee Berger can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Related Links:
Institute for Human Evolution
National Geographic
University of Witwatersrand

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Lee Berger
Lee Berger
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Lee Berger Biography

The Origins of Humanity

Lee Berger Date of birth: December 22, 1965

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  Lee Berger

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Lee Rogers Berger was born in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, but grew up on a farm outside the rural community of Sylvania, Georgia. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father sold insurance and worked as a real estate broker. Young Lee Berger enjoyed an active, outdoor childhood, and especially delighted in hunting for Indian arrowheads and collecting plant and animal specimens in the woods and fields around Sylvania. He was active in the Boy Scouts and the 4H Club, raising pigs and cattle. When he discovered the region's native gopher tortoise was endangered, he initiated a campaign to conserve the species, starting the first gopher tortoise preserve in Georgia. The successful campaign resulted in the gopher tortoise being named the State Reptile, and Lee Berger was named Georgia Youth Conservationist of the year.

An Eagle Scout, and statewide president of 4H, Lee Berger entered Vanderbilt University on a U.S. Navy ROTC scholarship with the intention of going to law school and becoming an attorney. In his freshman year at Vanderbilt, he was bored by economics and other pre-law classes, and did much better in his elective courses, geology and videography. By his sophomore year, he was failing in his official course of study. Remarkably, the Naval officer who was his ROTC adviser agreed to release him from his commitment to the Navy, and Berger withdrew from the university to find himself.

Lee Berger Biography Photo
Back in Savannah, Berger talked his way into a job as a studio cameraman at a local TV station. Fired with enthusiasm for his new line of work, he quickly advanced to the more challenging news division. In 1987, he was on assignment when he spotted a drowning woman being carried downstream by the Savannah River. Rather than stopping to record the dramatic scene, the young cameraman dropped his expensive camera and dove into the torrent to save the woman's life. Berger received national recognition for his heroic act, including the Boy Scouts of America Honor Medal and the Humanitarian Award of the National Press Photographers Association. The publicity, for which the 23-year-old felt unprepared, caused a second re-evaluation of his career choices. He returned to college, this time to Georgia Southern University. Inspired by the book Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, he undertook studies in anthropology, archeology and geology.

During the course of his undergraduate studies, Berger met Professor Johanson, and on graduation in 1989, hoped to join Johanson's crew at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. When Johanson's permit was revoked by the Tanzanian government at the last minute, the older man arranged for Berger to join an expedition led by the legendary Richard Leakey at Koobi Fora in Kenya. On his first morning in Africa, Berger found the fossilized femur of an early hominid, the kind of discovery many researchers spend their entire careers hunting in vain. If Berger had required any further encouragement in pursuing paleoanthropology as a career, he was now irrevocably set on his course. On the advice of Leakey and Johanson, he headed for Johannesburg, South Africa and enrolled in the graduate program in paleoanthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. In the years since, Berger has made his home in South Africa with his wife Jacqueline and their two children, Megan and Matthew.

Lee Berger Biography Photo
In 1991, he began his excavations at Gladysvale, near Krugersdorp, South Africa. Along with the long-established sites of Swartkrans and Sterkfontein, Gladysvale lies in an area known as the Cradle of Humankind. At Gladysvale, Berger discovered two early hominid teeth, making it the first new hominid fossil site to be discovered in Southern African in 48 years. Berger's career was off to an auspicious start, but 17 years would elapse before he made another major discovery in Southern Africa.

Lee Berger received his doctorate in 1994, writing his dissertation on the development of the clavicle (collarbone) and shoulder girdle in early hominids. In 1995 he was named Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Research Officer at Witwatersrand. In his early 30s, Berger became director of Witwatersrand's paleoanthropology research unit, a position once held by Raymond Dart, the discoverer of Australopithecus. The youngest person to lead any such facility, Berger took the novel step of opening the group's priceless collection of early hominid fossil specimens to all qualified researchers, rather than restricting access to faculty and institute associates. The new policy was controversial and put the new director at odds with many of his colleagues in the paleoanthropological community.

Among the treasures of Witwatersrand was the skull of the Taung Child, which Raymond Dart had first identified as a specimen of the previously unknown species Australopithecus africanus in 1925. By comparing the Taung skull with the skulls of infant chimpanzees known to have been killed by eagles or other birds of prey, Berger confirmed the hypothesis that the Taung Child, two or three years old at the time of death, had also been the victim of a bird of prey. Berger also made an exhaustive study of the limb lengths of Australopithecus, based on the comparisons of all known specimens.

Lee Berger Biography Photo
In 1997, Lee Berger received the first National Geographic Society Prize for Research and Exploration for his studies of the Taung Child and Australopithecus anatomy. The Society awarded Berger a research grant to use as he wished. Berger applied the grant to purchase then-rare GPS (global positioning satellite) coordinates from the U.S. government for the existing archeological sites in Southern Africa, and to acquire precious satellite maps of the region from NASA. He concentrated his mapping research of the area around Gladysvale, where he made his previous discoveries, but Berger found the information less valuable than he had hoped. The Cradle of Humankind was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, but with no new discoveries to report, further paleoanthropological exploration in Southern Africa ground to a halt. Lee Berger began to devote more energy to bringing his work, and that of his colleagues, to a wider public. He shared his thinking on the current state of early hominid research in his 2000 book, In the Footsteps of Eve: The Mystery of Human Origins.

Meanwhile, Berger's research continued in other directions, some far from Africa. In 2006, he made a startling discovery while vacationing in Palau, an island nation of the Western Pacific. In Palau, Berger uncovered fossilized remains of diminutive adults, human-like in some proportions, but unlike modern humans in facial structure. Berger returned to make further excavations, and comparison of these remains with earlier discoveries in Flores, Indonesia have generated a continuing controversy over the development of man in the Western Pacific. One interpretation of these findings suggests the existence of a now-extinct strain of genus Homo at a later date than previously supposed.

Lee Berger Biography Photo
In 2007, Lee Berger's career in Southern Africa was at a low ebb. Many of his colleagues believed the region's fossil fields were played out, and institutional support for further excavation had virtually dried up. Even in his own department at Witwatersrand, there was widespread sentiment that the future lay in more sophisticated technological analysis of existing specimens rather than field work searching for new ones. The institute Berger had headed at Witwatersrand was reorganized under new leadership. Berger was appointed Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at Witwatersrand, but he longed to resume field exploration.

In his spare time, Berger began toying with Google Earth, a popular application for viewing aerial photography. When he entered the GPS coordinates he had purchased at such great expense in the late '90s, he was shocked to find that they did not correspond accurately with the sites he knew so well by sight. He eventually realized that the U.S. government had deliberately included inaccuracies in the GPS data for security reasons. With the new tools available in the 21st Century, he examined aerial photographs of the Cradle of Humankind and began to see patterns among the known fossil sites. These in turn led him to surmise the existence of other, unexplored fossil deposits. When he explored the area in person, armed with this new data, he noted dozens of previously unknown caves, hundreds of potential excavation sites, a rich and untouched source of fossils throughout an area that had been explored continuously since 1935.

Lee Berger Biography Photo
On August 15, 2008, Berger returned to one of these sites with a doctoral student and his young son, Matthew. Within hours of their arrival, nine-year-old Matthew found a rock containing the fossilized clavicle of an unknown hominid. When Berger examined the rock, he found a jaw and canine tooth as well. Nearby were more teeth and a shoulder blade. What they had found were the remains of a previously unknown species of hominid that lived nearly 2 million years ago. In subsequent visits, they recovered the skull of the original specimen, a juvenile male, as well as partial remains of two adults of the species, male and female, and three infants.

This site, which Berger named Malapa ("home" in the language of the indigenous Sotho people) has produced the most complete sets of early hominid skeletons ever assembled. The location of the fossils, formerly a natural well, also yielded numerous animal remains, including those of an extinct saber-toothed cat. Berger named the previously unknown species Australopithecus sediba ("Australopithecus of the well"). These creatures had long ape-like arms, with articulate hands capable of using tools, and long legs, with feet and hip bones suitable for walking upright. They may represent a transitional stage between the ape-like Australopithecus africanus and the more human Homo habilis or Homo erectus, the tool-making predecessors of modern man. Regardless of their exact position in the family tree, Berger's discovery has greatly expanded our understanding of the variation among early hominids and stimulated a new wave of productive exploration in Southern Africa.

Lee Berger Biography Photo
Continuing his interest in communicating these discoveries to the general public, Berger has written numerous books, including The Official Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind, and a book for younger readers, The Skull in the Rock, which he hopes will inspire another generation of adventurers to seek the origins of humankind.

In Autumn 2013, Lee Berger led an excavation at the Rising Star cave complex in the Cradle of Humankind, and recovered more than 1500 hominid fossils, representing 15 or more individuals. The species of these remains could not be immediately identified, but the condition and completeness of the skeletons was unprecedented. After two years of study and analysis, Berger concluded that all were specimens of the same unfamiliar species. Berger named the species Homo naledi (star man) for the site where they were found, Dinaledi (many stars) in the Sesotho (Southern Sotho) language.

Many more fossils remain to be excavated from the site, but Berger's analysis so far has led him to conclude that these specimens are well over 2.5 million years old, and represent a very early stage of the genus Homo. These hominids possessed long legs and feet suitable for walking long distances, as well as long fingers adapted to climbing and swinging from tree branches. The brain of H. naledi was no larger than a baseball, but the development of the hands and wrists would have enabled these hominids to use tools. Most interestingly, the orderly arrangement of the Naledi skeletons suggests ritual burial, a practice long thought to be the property of a much later stage of human evolution.

This page last revised on Dec 14, 2015 13:10 EDT
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