Normally a book written by a paleoanthropologist wouldn’t sound like a gripping read.
But Lee Berger’s new book, Almost Human, is as exciting as any work by a master writer of thrillers. And Part of Berger’s skills are his ability to write about his discipline in language approachable to the layman.
I am sure he is familiar with these lyrics from an old children’s song, Dem Bones:
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Now shake dem skeleton bones! The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, Now shake dem skeleton bones!
On the morning of 15 August 2008, Berger, his young son Matt and Job Kibii from Kenya were surveying a new fossil site in the world famous Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg. It was a typical winter’s morning, with nothing to suggest that a discovery they made would be life-changing.
Matt’s son cried out: “Dad, I found a fossil!” Berger’s eyes focused on the rock, a bone stuck out of it, he recognised it instantly as a clavicle. He turned the rock over, there was a hominin canine tooth and part of the jaw.
“Matt said I cursed. I don’t remember. Whatever I said or did, I knew for sure that both his life and mine were about to change forever.”
This happenstance discovery set off a chain of exploration, scientific research and culminated in the announcement of Homo naledi, an extinct species of hominin, which anthropologists have assigned to the genus Homo.
In 2017, however, the fossils were dated to between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, long after much larger-brained and more modern-looking hominins had appeared. The research team therefore believes that Homo naledi is not a direct ancestor of modern humans, although it is probably an offshoot within the genus Homo.
The process of discovery by Lee Berger and his team is an exciting, often moving, tale of persistence, bravery, belief, and scientific research.
The most emotionally engaging parts of Almost Human are those where scientists were recruited to conduct the underground exploration and recovery of bones from underground caves. These individuals not only had to have the right qualifications and experience, but they also had to be slimly built to squeeze through the extremely narrow approaches to the area where the bones were. These intrepid women were dubbed Underground Astronauts, and their endeavours are every bit as pioneering and courageous as their airborne contemporaries.
“21 days after setting foot at Rising Star, this team of scientists, students, and volunteers had accomplished something remarkable. Together we had recovered more than 1.300 individually numbered fossil hominin remains, an unprecedented haul by any standard, far exceeding the number discovered at any single site in Africa.”
If you have done the Adventure Tour at the Cango Caves and found parts of the experience adrenalin-pumpingly frightening, fasten your safety-belts…..
This is really gripping stuff and many a reader will be forgiven for shedding a tear of joy and relief when the Underground Astronauts surface after their first journey underground, I know I did.
One of the major achievements of the book is the easy readability of Berger’s writing. What could easily have been a difficult journey through paleoanthropological terminology is avoided by Berger wearing one of his professorial hats, Public Understanding of Science. As a result Almost Human, although often quite technical, is never a difficult read.
The origin of humankind is a fascinating study and bound to result in differences of opinion and even controversy. The work of paleoanthropologists like Berger is ongoing and what an intriguing prospect is the anticipation of what might yet be discovered
“Archaeologists have assumed that all the people who took these great steps in human development were direct ancestors of modern Homo sapiens – that human evolution happened in a single straight line. But how do we know?”
Berger says that we are only at the beginning stages of learning about this remarkable species. New questions need to be asked and old assumptions questioned. So much of Africa lies almost entirely unexplored.
And like many good ‘thrillers’, Almost Human ends with a climactic sentence but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.
I read the book at one sitting and finished it hungry for more. It is an incredibly rewarding read.
Lee Berger is Research Professor in Human Origins and the Public Understanding of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. He is the author of more than 200 scholarly and popular works. His research has been featured three times on the cover of Science and has been named among the top 100 science stories of the year by Time, Scientific American and Discover magazine on numerous occasions. Berger has appeared on many television documentaries. He is best known for his discovery of Australopithecus sediba and more recently Homo naledi.