Photograph by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage
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Lee Berger

Photograph by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage

Lee Berger Presses His Search for 'Almost Human' Ancestors

Unconventional fossil-hunter aims to turn paleoanthropology into an innovative experimental science.

This story appears in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, 51, searches for fossils of human ancestors—sometimes in unorthodox ways. He empowers early career scientists, makes all his data open source, and publicizes discoveries for general (and not just academic) audiences. His new book, Almost Human, unveils his recent work and poses new questions about how humans developed.

How does your latest find, Homo naledi, challenge theories of human origins?

Homo naledi is between 200,000 and 300,000 years old. That’s a best guess. That means you have a small-brain, primitive hominin that existed in Africa right down to the late middle Pleistocene, which was a complex-tools era thought to coincide with the rise of modern humans. We’ve also discovered a second, utterly discrete cave chamber containing Homo naledi, including a skeleton. So now we have two occurrences of this extraordinary concept. You can imagine the questions that are going to arise.

Doesn’t publishing your raw data invite premature criticism?

Yes, there is public criticism, but that’s peculiar to any science in transition. The philosophy behind open sourcing and sharing our data and 3-D file images is that we’re turning paleoanthropology into an experimental science. Our field has not typically operated like that. Unless others can test the hypotheses you’re putting forward, it’s not an experimental science.

Does pairing new scientists with such big questions risk their careers if the science is sloppy—or wrong?

That concept is fiction. Other fields of experimental science embrace early career scientists. They bring the freshest ideas and the newest applications of technology. Scientists should never be perceived as risking their careers by being wrong. That’s the nature of hypotheses.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.