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Professor Lee Berger appointed as National Geographic Explorer in Residence

- Wits University

Professor Lee Berger appointed as National Geographic Explorer in Residence, but will remain at Wits as an Honorary Professor.

World-renowned palaeoanthropologist, Professor Lee Berger, will become a National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence and staff member, but will remain in an honorary capacity at Wits University, where he will continue to conduct research and supervise graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are keen to explore the origins of humankind and discover more about our deep human journey.

“I look forward to the new challenge, which will allow me to spend more time exploring, making new discoveries, and helping to better tell the story of humankind,” says Professor Lee Berger, an ambassador for South African palaeotourism. “There are still so many discoveries to make, and so many stories to tell about Africa’s contribution to humankind. I look forward to taking Africa to the world and bringing the world to Africa.” 

An award-winning researcher, explorer, author and speaker, Berger made global headlines with the discovery of Australopithecus sediba at Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in 2008. He subsequently led the Rising Star Expedition which resulted in the excavation of Homo naledi, the largest fossil hominin discovery yet made in Africa in the Rising Star Cave System. These discoveries were recognised by the Smithsonian as among the ten most important scientific discoveries of the decade in 2020.

“We wish Professor Lee Berger well on the next step in his expedition, and we are grateful that he will continue to be associated with Wits through his research and other activities, including the supervision of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows,” says Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal. “We are confident that Professor Berger’s appointment with the National Geographic Society and his association with Wits will enable closer collaboration between these institutions in the future.”

About Professor Lee R. Berger

Berger, a Wits graduate who studied under Professor Phillip V Tobias, holds a PhD in palaeoanthropology and a Doctor of Science degree in the same field. His work has been recognised by the Web of Science. His contribution to the exploration sciences has resulted in advances in the field of applied exploration methods and the application of technology to exploration, excavation and discovery. His commitment to open science and open sourcing, his ability to collaborate across disciplines and fields, and his proclivity for bringing together the best minds from around the world to work on some of the rarest fossils on Earth, have ensured that South Africa’s palaeontological treasures are shared with the world.

The author of more than 200 scholarly and popular works including more than 170 refereed papers and a number of academic and popular books on palaeontology, natural history, and exploration, Berger’s work has been featured three times on the cover of Science and he has been named in the top 100 science stories of the year by Time, Scientific American and Discover magazine. He has appeared in many television documentaries on subjects related to archaeology, palaeoanthropology and natural history.

Professor Berger has radically transformed science education and science communication in South Africa over the past 25 years. Aside from being able to make science accessible through telling a good story, he had a knack of working with his international collaborators and partner institutions to share information about South Africa’s discoveries across almost all continents. Always open to using new technology, Berger was the first scientist to have a team live tweeting from a press conference announcing Au. Sediba, the first to develop a free virtual reality mobile app (with the Perot Museum of Nature and Science) so that the public could experience the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star Cave System, the first to develop a fossil YouTube lecture series during COVID-19, and one of a handful of scientists from Africa whose work regularly features in all major media across the world – from CNN to National Geographic. The 2015 PBS Nova National Geographic documentary Dawn of Humanity about Berger’s discovery of Homo naledi and the Rising Star expedition was nominated for an Emmy.

The recipient of the National Geographic Society’s first Prize for Research and Exploration, the Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award, and the Rolex Explorer of the Year, Berger was recognised in 2016 as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Berger’s work has brought him recognition as a Fellow of the Explorer’s Club, the Royal Society of South Africa, the Royal Geographical Society and the South African Academy of Sciences. He has also served as the Chair of the Fulbright Commission of South Africa, the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Young Academy and the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences of South Africa, amongst other positions. He was a founder of the Palaeoanthropological Scientific Trust and a founding Trustee of the Jane Goodall Society of South Africa.

Wits professor and paleoanthropologist Lee Berger won the ASSAf Gold Medal

Selected media and online links:

Dawn of Humanity -

The Academy of Achievement -

World Science University -

New Scientist Live -

Wits University lecture series – the fossil vault:

Time 100 -

Google Scholar -