9-Year-Old Kid Literally Stumbled on Stunning Fossils of a New Hominid

By Andrew Moseman | April 8, 2010 1:54 pm

AustralSkullWhen I was 9 years old I desperately wanted to be a paleontologist, but sadly, daydreams of unearthing dinosaurs led to no significant fossil finds in my backyard. So I must confess unending respect for Matthew Berger, who, at age 9, quite by accident made a stunning scientific find. In the journal Science this week, Matthew’s father paleoanthropologist Lee Berger describes the fossils of a brand-new hominid species that they turned up in South Africa: Australopithecus sediba, which dates back to between 1.78 and 1.95 million years and could offer new hints about that era of human evolution.

Matthew was chasing his dog near a site where his father had long hunted for fossils when he tripped over the find. The bones belong to a pre-teenage boy and a woman estimated to be in her late 20s or early 30s; the individuals died at about the same time, and before their remains had fully decomposed, they were entombed in an avalanche of sediment and nearly perfectly preserved deep in the Malapa cave north of Johannesburg, South Africa [TIME]. As a result, Lee Berger says, the bones are in an astonishing state for their nearly 2-million-year age.

While such a find was bound to bring out the “missing link” cliches, we don’t know for sure where Australopithecus sediba would belong on the evolutionary tree with respect to us. “There’s no compelling evidence that this newly proposed species was ancestral to Homo,” remarks Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. [Science News]. These bones date to a time when the genus Australopithecus was beginning to give way to Homo, our own. The New York Times reports, however, that while Berger’s team places its find within Australopithecus, not all anthropologists are sure it can be so easily classified.

For instance, the Australopithecus sediba arms are long like an ape’s, suggesting these hominids were competent tree climbers. But the hands are smaller, like ours. The boy’s skull is small, like Australopithecus. But his nose and cheekbones more closely resemble Homo. “They are a fascinating mosaic of features,” said Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution. “It reminds us of the combining and recombining of characteristics, the tinkering and experimentation, that go on in evolution” [The New York Times]. Donald Johanson, the discoverer of Lucy (which is classified under Australopithecus), praised the find but says Berger’s interpretation is way off. He think the fossil is a variety of Homo.

The debate over these bones will go on and on. But while Lee Berger reaps his kudos, there’s one person who’s not receiving due respect: Matthew. In an insult to 9-year-old scientists everywhere, Science reportedly shot down Lee Berger’s request to list his son as a co-author. But the younger Berger is still left with good stories to tell. On Aug. 15, 2008, when Matthew called his father to look at the bones he had found, Dr. Berger began cursing wildly as he neared his son. The boy mistook his father’s profanity for anger…. “I couldn’t believe it,” Dr. Berger giddily recalled. “I took the rock, and I turned it” and “sticking out of the back of the rock was a mandible with a tooth, a canine, sticking out. And I almost died,” he said, adding “What are the odds?” [The New York Times].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Meet the Ancestors (The Hall of Human Origins exhibit review)
DISCOVER: Was Lucy a Brutal Brawler?
DISCOVER: Sunset on the Savanna
80beats: 1.5 Million Years Ago, Homo Erectus Walked a Lot Like Us
80beats: A Fossil Named Ardi Shakes Up Humanity’s Family Tree
80beats: Is the Mysterious Siberian “X-Woman” a New Hominid Species?

Image: Brett Eloff

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
  • http://www.Dan-Barrett.com Yumfy

    Can’t wait to see a documentary about this.

  • Logic Man

    Looks like another Piltdown man. Pathetic.

  • Arne

    The discovery of the SA fossil confirms exactly my speculation
    about the loss of estrus and the evolution of Man.

    http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/ardi-fossil-brings-us-closer-common-ancestor-humans/story?id=8716359&page=1

    The TEETH reveal that the creature lived in a promiscuous
    chimp-style group, where the females mated with all males when the
    females ovulated.

    Then, when estrus was lost, with the “Eve”, the way was opened
    for monogamy and all other of the things which make us human,
    including language.

    http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=83327275&blogId=474343872

    Amazing!

    Comments appreciated!

    Arne

  • http://www.thecatholicfaithful.blogspot.com Lynea

    What the heck?! Donald Johanson? The man who “discovered” Lucy ? Scientists found Lucy to be fake — merely an ape. Oh this is so disturbing that they would post something like this as if it purports to support evolution as a proven science. Go ahead, let them (try to) prove it, but don’t lie so badly and treat the readers as if we’re total idiots. We are a little more educated and up-to-date on the facts than that.

  • Angry Tomato

    Uh oh, a christian! *ducks* Lucy was an ape, but so are you! Teehee! I guess evolution isn’t a proven science, but it is a very very well supported observation.

  • Dave

    There is one question that I have been asking for 40 years and that no creationist / anti-evolutioonist has ever answered for me (or even attempted to answer….. if God did not intend evolution to take place, why did he create DNA and sexual reproduction? To be anti-evolution is to be anti-God and anti-creation.

    And Logic Man I am amazed at your complete lack of logic… how does what has been published remotely relate to Piltdown Man? This is not the 1920s where you seem to be living.

  • Shari

    Why is there so much cynicism? I think this is very exciting… and I am with Dave on this: evolution as a way for life to grow, adapt, continue. If there is a God, then I’d say this was a brilliant design by the powers that be.

    Why is finding a fossil anything to do with a hoax? Fossils are everywhere. The discoveries aren’t making any grandiose claims as of yet. They are simply trying to classify what they’ve found, right?

    People, you should lighten up. You’ll be a lot happier!!!

  • Keith

    While the gravity of this find is lost on me, the scientific community seems very excited about it. From what I’ve read and heard, this is potentially a great find!

    Can you imagine being the 9-year-old who found this? His father is a paleoanthropologist, has been searching his whole professional life and found nothing more than chips of bones, and his son comes across this?! Talk about making Dad proud!

    Shari, I think that you are right on with so many of your thoughts! You sound like someone I could fall in love with!

  • carmanel

    this proves that we were always man, Homo, and never ape? This is what I deduce. If so, we were never apes?

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