Part Ape, Part Human

A new ancestor emerges from the richest collection of fossil skeletons ever found.

Lee Berger is standing in a death trap, smiling. It is a hole in the ground about 25 miles northwest of Johannesburg, in a ridged brown valley where herds of giraffes occasionally parade between stands of trees. The red-rock walls of the pit are higher than Berger's head, and steep enough in spots to make a scramble up, or down, rather daunting. Some two million years ago, the hole was a great deal deeper, with no possibility of escape for any creature that fell in. This accounts for the trove of fossils Berger is finding, which in turn accounts for his upbeat mood. He leans over a red boulder near the pit bottom, tracing a white-colored protrusion with his fingers. "It looks like part of an arm," he says. "That means we've found another individual."

The first two skeletons removed from the pit were a young adolescent male, 12 or 13 years old, and an adult female. Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and his colleagues made the announcement in April 2010. The site, an eroded limestone cave called Malapa, is in a region already so famous for its ancient human fossils that it is often referred to as the Cradle of Humankind. Much of that reputation rests on finds from the early 1900s, back when South Africa harbored the best evidence for early human evolution, includingAustralopithecus africanus, at the time our oldest known ancestor. Beginning in the late 1950s, the epochal finds of the Leakey family in Tanzania and Kenya, followed later by Donald Johanson's celebrated discovery of the 3.2-million-year-old Lucy skeleton in Ethiopia, shifted cradle-bragging rights to East Africa, where they have remained ever since.

Lee Berger thinks the cradle is about to rock again. He believes Malapa may hold the key to one of the most significant, least understood chapters in the human evolutionary journey: the origin of the first species enough like us to be called human—a member of the genus Homo.

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