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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Lee Berger’s Almost Human “fascinating and dramatically paced,” writes Rachel Newcomb for The Washington Post

Almost Human is the personal story of a charismatic and visionary palaeontologist, a rich and readable narrative about science, exploration, and what it means to be human.

In 2013, Lee Berger caught wind of a cache of bones in a hard-to-reach underground cave near Johannesburg. He put out a call around the world for collaborators – men and women small and adventurous enough to be able to squeeze through 8-inch tunnels to reach a sunless cave 40 feet underground. With this team of ‘underground astronauts’, Berger made the discovery of a lifetime: hundreds of prehistoric bones, including entire skeletons of at least 15 individuals, all perhaps two million years old.

Their features combined those of known pre-hominids with those more human than anything ever before seen in prehistoric remains. Berger’s team had discovered an all new species: Homo naledi.

The cave proved to be the richest pre-hominid site ever discovered, full of implications that challenge how we define ourselves as human. Did these ancestors of ours bury their dead? If so, they must have had an awareness of death, a level of self-knowledge: the very characteristic we used to define ourselves as human.

Did an equally advanced species inhabit Earth with us, or before us?

Addressing these questions, Berger counters the arguments of those colleagues who have questioned his controversial interpretations and astounding finds.

Anthropologist and the Diane and Michael Maher Distinguished Professor of Teaching and Learning at Rollins College, Rachel Newcomb, recently reviewed Berger’s book for the Washing Post. Read an excerpt here:

A 9-year-old boy stumbles upon a 2 million-year-old hominin clavicle while exploring in a field in South Africa. A paleoanthropologist, kayaking with his family on the Pacific island of Palau, finds a burial chamber full of ancient remains that he suspects might be a previously undocumented race of tiny people.

A swashbuckling former diamond hunter discovers a treasure trove of humanlike fossils in a network of caves accessible only to people small enough to slither through an 18-centimeter opening.

In Almost Human, the search for hominin fossils reads like an extreme sport. Written by Lee Berger with fellow paleoanthropologist John Hawks, the book documents with riveting intensity Berger’s lifelong fascination with fossil hunting and the contributions he has made to our understanding of human origins.

In contemporary paleoanthropological circles, Berger, who grew up in the United States and is based in South Africa, is considered something of a maverick.

He invites National Geographic to document his expeditions for social media, puts out calls on Facebook to invite scientists to join his teams and, rather than hoarding his finds so he alone can analyze them, makes replicas and photos of fossils available for other scientists to study.

Traditionally, the journey from fossil discovery to publication has been a slow and laborious one, but Berger is known for speeding everything up.

Critical of establishment paleoanthropologists, he views them as “an exclusive club” that refuses to share with others. “I represented a generation that didn’t just want the keys to the club,” Berger writes, “we wanted to open the doors to everyone. We were impatient for a faster pace of discovery and science, and sought collaborations with larger and larger groups of experts outside the traditional schools of thought.”

Other scientists have sharply criticized Berger for being a relentless self-promoter, too quick to announce to the world that his fossils are rewriting human history.

Paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley has accused Berger of engaging in “selfie science” and suggested that he is more interested in telling a good story than in sharing scientifically validated facts.

Criticisms of Berger aside, Almost Human is a fascinating and dramatically paced book that translates for a lay audience the excitement of paleoanthropology, its debates and its scandals.

Continue reading Newcomb’s review here.
 
 

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