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If you like Lee Berger's story, you might also like:
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Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
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Institute for Human Evolution
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Lee Berger
Lee Berger
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Lee Berger Interview

The Origins of Humanity

October 25, 2012
Washington, D.C.

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  Lee Berger

You made one of your greatest discoveries, the remains of Australopithecus sediba, right after what you might call the lowest point in your career, at the end of 2007. There wasn't a lot of support for new exploration at that time. Can you tell us how that turned around?

In that holiday period of 2007 I was sitting at home, and I'm not sure whether it was the lowest point, but it was a point where I was truly trying to find where -- what was I going to manifest as next? It was going to be very hard to continue to get the kind of resources to fund risk-taking exploration. People were clearly not believing that there were other sites out there. There were talks of not even allowing digging at new sites because they clearly had failed. And I had almost been a demonstration of that over 17 years. It was at that moment that I became the last human being on earth to discover Google Earth. There I was, surfing and looking at these satellite images that were free. And I have to explain why that was such an epiphany for me. In the late 1990s, I had been awarded a prize for research and exploration by the National Geographic Society. It had been done by some of these other research and discoveries that I had made in the middle 1990s and early 1990s in South Africa. Bill Grosvenor, who was then the CEO, and Bill Allen the editor, took me into a grand office and said, "You can have anything you want, within reason, to do anything you want as part of this prize," a research grant. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to apply technology, because right then there was this incredible new technology that was available. One was handheld GPSs that said that you could place your position with coordinates within like 15 meters on Planet Earth. That was amazing to me. We used to have to measure by triangulation our position on a map until that point.

Lee Berger Interview Photo
Also, satellite maps were being made available by NASA, 30-meter pixels each one. They were hugely expensive -- thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars. That's what I did. I bought these things. I started out exploring Southern Africa for three years, and I found quite a few new sites outside of the region. I mapped through all the existing sites with this incredible new technology, and I ended up concentrating specifically on an area just outside of Johannesburg, Gladysvale, where I had discovered these first hominids years before, and where all these big discoveries were. I discovered four new cave sites that had fossils in them. Now that's pretty good, because there had only been about 14 or 15 known. So I had added a percentage, and this is probably the most explored place on the continent of Africa for these things. I started working, and, of course, you know the end of that story, because I didn't find much in those sites as we moved into the 21st century. So it was that context that I suddenly was looking at free satellite images -- not with 15-meter resolution, but 5-meter resolution of this area.

After looking at my house, like everyone does the first time they do it, and then after looking at some of the places you know, I saw that little window over to the left that you could put GPS coordinates in. And I had some of the most expensively obtained GPS coordinates on the planet to put in that window. I typed them in, and I saw what everyone sees, an amazing Google Earth phenomenon: flying from the sky and popping right down onto the point that that coordinate is. And my coordinate, the first one -- which I put in as Gladysvale, because I knew it better than any place on earth -- landed on nothing. It landed hundreds and hundreds of meters away from Gladysvale. The second point I put in, the same thing. The third? They were all useless. They were all wrong. I had wasted three years of my life. I had wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of research grant. It did not take me long to Google why the U.S. government had put deliberate error into those GPSs in the late 1990s: for military purposes. And the errors that were inherent in those handheld GPSs had created a compounding error. Well that was like adding "low to low" on my life at that moment. So I spent the rest of December and January moving those points physically on Google, from where they landed to where I knew they should be, because I could see these sites. I could see what they looked like. I knew where they were. I could locate them.

That must have been extremely meticulous and difficult work.

Lee Berger: It was one of the most important moments in the entire story of my scientific career, because it was in correcting that error that I began to see patterns, that I began to see that they fell in linear structures. I began to see the fossil sites clustered together. Caves might be in more random situations. I also began to see and learn what a site would look like -- all the different varieties. They didn't all look the same. And I began to think that if that's a site, that looks like a site, and this looks like a site. I knew it could not be true. I knew it could not be true because I had walked that area myself. So had everyone else though, in the field, for the last 80 years. But it was driving me insane. So much so, that in March of that year, I printed out a little A4 sheet of targets. And I did what every human does: I started as far away from a place I knew best -- the site of Gladysvale -- because I knew there was nothing there. All the way in the city limits of Krugersdorp, 20 kilometers away from that point, where these rocks sort of faded out into the urban sprawl. And on the first day out, I found 21 new sites. By July of that year I had found 600 new sites, including well more than 40 fossil-bearing sites. Imagine this in the magnitude -- if we went from 20 known sites to 60 -- and I was blown away. If that error had not occurred, if those GPS points had been right, I would have never gone through that process. I would have accepted that the terrain was as we see it, and I would have never -- so if I had not failed in that earlier expedition, what I'm about to tell you happened to me would never have happened. On the first of August -- I had moved back in by then to the area around Gladysvale -- and of course, by then the entire area was covered with sites: caves, fossil-bearing sites. They were all over the place. We just missed them, all of us.

Lee Berger Interview Photo
Lee Berger Interview Photo

Were people following your work at this point? Did you have their attention?

Lee Berger Interview Photo
Lee Berger: The community of scientists -- particularly the geologists -- I began to rope into this. And I really thought that was where my career was going to go. This is a big deal. I'm suddenly offering decades -- hundreds of years -- of resources to the science. So I corralled together a couple of geologists, but no paleoanthropologists. You know, it is surprising how many people are risk-averse in that sort of thing. And I really thought the contribution was going to be this mass of new potential to our database. And on the first of August of 2008, I was almost on the last sweep of the entire region. I was as close to Gladysvale as you get. I was one kilometer away. One-and-a-half hills. And I saw some targets on Google Earth. I used to sit on Google Earth the night before deciding where I was going to go. I'd find my targets, and then my dog Tau and I would get in the car and there we'd go to that area. Out we'd go, and I'd walk it, target to target, looking at the terrain, finding things, marking one's map, taking pictures. And that's what I did on that morning. But I knew I wasn't going to find anything that morning, even though I had these targets, because I had been in this valley. I'd been in this valley in the late 1990s as part of that National Geographic expedition, and I'd found one of those fossil sites in this valley. I had been there. But you know, I was following this system by then, and it was almost like a zen-like exercise to go out. I was disappointed if I didn't find 20 caves a day when I was out there. And I drove in this valley, and drove near these targets, which were only 50 yards off the road.

I knew the moment I stopped the car I was going to make a discovery, because I could see an old lime trackway that somehow I had missed in the two or 300 times I had driven down that road before. Tau and I got out, followed this trackway up around this really rough terrain. Dolomite's hard to walk on. The animals had carved a path along this old lime miner trackway, because it was where they could walk too. I came to an old game fence. It's in a wilderness area. And there I crawled through this hole in the fence, and in front of me was the site of Malapa. It was just a little hole in the ground with some trees. And the first rock I turned over had an antelope arm in it. That's rare. Big mammal fossils one kilometer from where I'd spent the last 17 years working and I hadn't seen a fossil site right here! But I was on a mapping expedition, took photographs and notes, looked around, saw there were fossils, went up the hill, and found 46 new caves. Right in the middle of the most explored area on Planet Earth. I was shocked.

I went back to the lab, and this incredible tragedy occurred to us.

A little more than a week before this all occurred, the young man who was going to take over this position as director was killed in a motorcycle accident in London. And so here we were sitting with a lab that had already shifted direction, new post-docs hired that were going to be trained in lab things, and no leader. I was in my office, and I don't remember exactly what I was doing that morning, but a young man named Job Kibii came into my office, sat down across from me, and said, "Would you be my postdoctoral supervisor?" And I looked up at him -- it was a tragic moment -- and I said, "No. You're our lab guy. You want to be a lab guy. I'm not a lab guy. I'm a field guy." But I'd just found this site and it was really bothering me. "If you want to learn to be a field guy, let's go look and see what this site has to offer, and if it's what I think it is, I'll teach you to be a field guy."

Lee Berger Interview Photo
Lee Berger Interview Photo

Lee Berger: So on the 15th of August we go back to the site. My dog Tau, Job, my then nine-year-old son Matthew. We arrive there and I'm telling them the story of how I discovered it. We walk up the hill, walk to the site. There's a little hole there where miners had found this site a hundred years ago or so, and they put in two, three dynamite blasts. And then they'd done something that I've never seen before -- they left it. They knocked a few rocks loose. One of the ones is the one that I'd found earlier. And I said, "Okay, guys, go find fossils. And when you find one, call me. I'll identify it and let's see what the site has to offer." And with that Matthew and Tau are gone -- phfft! -- off into the bush. And Job and I were standing at the hole, and I said, "You know, Job, I think that the miners left this, because they probably did just what I did. They probably found it first, they start drilling holes and stuff, the foreman or someone walks up the hill, he finds all these other caves. And by the time he gets back, they drill the holes, he blasts, he doesn't see anything worthwhile, and he says, 'Okay, move it up here.' They destroyed almost every one of those other 46 caves -- destroyed." And as I finished saying that, Matthew shouts, "Dad, I found a fossil!" He was 15 meters off the site in high grass. I could see he was holding a small rock. And just for a moment I almost didn't go look, because I knew what he would have found. He would have found an antelope fossil, because at that time the statistical numbers were for every one of these early hominids we find -- these human ancestor pieces -- we find about 250,000 pieces of antelopes. We just don't find these things. My nine-year-old son, encouraging fossil hunting. And I started walking towards him, and five meters away I knew that his and my life were going to change forever, because he was holding a small rock. You have to visualize and crouch down. And there, on the outside of it, was an S-shaped bone.

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