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Biography: Lee Berger

- By Wits University

When it comes to digging up the past, Professor Lee Berger has, quite literally, done his bit for humanity. 

Born and raised in the United States, Berger has been a resident of Gauteng for over 20 years, is a naturalised South African, and has made his name through the discovery and study of ancient hominid fossils. 

Berger studied under renowned palaeoanthropologist, Professor Phillip Tobias, examining the bone structure of hominids, the species that preceded human beings. 

Since these hominids lived millions of years ago, people like Berger have to locate and excavate ancient fossils buried in places like South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

That’s exactly what happened in 2008 when Berger’s 9-year-old son, Matthew, stumbled upon the fossil of an ancient hominid in the Malapa Fossil Site at the Cradle of Humankind. 

Berger immediately realised that it was an important find, and set to work. Scientists are still uncertain whether or not the nearly 2-million-year-old remains represent a new species in the evolutionary chain. Berger named it Australopithecus sediba. “Sediba” means “natural spring” in Sotho. 

Berger’s work helps us to understand how and when our ancestors learned to walk, when they started making and using tools, and even when the first use of language may have been. 

Through studying changes in brain size, posture and teeth of these fossils, we can piece together the story of how our species, Homo sapiens, evolved.

To listen to Berger's speech, click Lee Berger.mp3.

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