What It Takes is an audio podcast produced by the American Academy of Achievement featuring intimate, revealing conversations with influential leaders in the diverse fields of endeavor: public service, science and exploration, sports, technology, business, arts and humanities, and justice.
No one's ever made a great discovery by surging behind a wave. I was always pushing boundaries.
Lee Rogers Berger was born in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, but grew up on a farm outside the rural community of Sylvania, Georgia. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father sold insurance and worked as a real estate broker. Young Lee Berger enjoyed an active, outdoor childhood, and especially delighted in hunting for Indian arrowheads and collecting plant and animal specimens in the woods and fields around Sylvania. He was active in the Boy Scouts and the 4H Club, raising pigs and cattle. When he discovered the region’s native gopher tortoise was endangered, he initiated a campaign to conserve the species, starting the first gopher tortoise preserve in Georgia. The successful campaign resulted in the gopher tortoise being named the State Reptile, and Lee Berger was named Georgia Youth Conservationist of the year. An Eagle Scout, and statewide president of 4H, Lee Berger entered Vanderbilt University on a U.S. Navy ROTC scholarship with the intention of going to law school and becoming an attorney. In his freshman year at Vanderbilt, he was bored by economics and other pre-law classes, and did much better in his elective courses, geology and videography. By his sophomore year, he was failing in his official course of study. Remarkably, the Navy officer who was his ROTC advisor agreed to release him from his commitment to the Navy, and Berger withdrew from the university to find himself.
Back in Savannah, Berger talked his way into a job as a studio cameraman at a local TV station. Fired with enthusiasm for his new line of work, he quickly advanced to the more challenging news division. In 1987, he was on assignment when he spotted a drowning woman being carried downstream by the Savannah River. Rather than stopping to record the dramatic scene, the young cameraman dropped his expensive camera and dove into the torrent to save the woman’s life. Berger received national recognition for his heroic act, including the Boy Scouts of America Honor Medal and the Humanitarian Award of the National Press Photographers Association. The publicity, for which the 23-year-old felt unprepared, caused a second re-evaluation of his career choices. He returned to college, this time to Georgia Southern University. Inspired by the book Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, he undertook studies in anthropology, archeology and geology.
During the course of his undergraduate studies, Berger met Professor Johanson, and on graduation in 1989, hoped to join Johanson’s crew at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. When Johanson’s permit was revoked by the Tanzanian government at the last minute, the older man arranged for Berger to join an expedition led by the legendary Richard Leakey at Koobi Fora in Kenya. On his first morning in Africa, Berger found the fossilized femur of an early hominid, the kind of discovery many researchers spend their entire careers hunting in vain. If Berger had required any further encouragement in pursuing paleoanthropology as a career, he was now irrevocably set on his course. On the advice of Leakey and Johanson, he headed for Johannesburg, South Africa and enrolled in the graduate program in paleoanthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. In the years since, Berger has made his home in South Africa with his wife Jacqueline and their two children, Megan and Matthew.
In 1991, he began his excavations at Gladysvale, near Krugersdorp, South Africa. Along with the long-established sites of Swartkrans and Sterkfontein, Gladysvale lies in an area known as the Cradle of Humankind. At Gladysvale, Berger discovered two early hominid teeth, making it the first new hominid fossil site to be discovered in Southern Africa in 48 years. Berger’s career was off to an auspicious start, but 17 years would elapse before he made another major discovery in Southern Africa.
Lee Berger received his doctorate in 1994, writing his dissertation on the development of the clavicle (collarbone) and shoulder girdle in early hominids. In 1995 he was named Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Research Officer at Witwatersrand. In his early 30s, Berger became director of Witwatersrand’s paleoanthropology research unit, a position once held by Raymond Dart, the discoverer of Australopithecus. The youngest person to lead any such facility, Berger took the novel step of opening the group’s priceless collection of early hominid fossil specimens to all qualified researchers, rather than restricting access to faculty and institute associates. The new policy was controversial and put the new director at odds with many of his colleagues in the paleoanthropological community.
Among the treasures of Witwatersrand was the skull of the Taung Child, which Raymond Dart had first identified as a specimen of the previously unknown species Australopithecus africanus in 1925. By comparing the Taung skull with the skulls of infant chimpanzees known to have been killed by eagles or other birds of prey, Berger confirmed the hypothesis that the Taung Child, two or three years old at the time of death, had also been the victim of a bird of prey. Berger also made an exhaustive study of the limb lengths of Australopithecus, based on the comparisons of all known specimens.
In 1997, Lee Berger received the first National Geographic Society Prize for Research and Exploration for his studies of the Taung Child and Australopithecus anatomy. The Society awarded Berger a research grant to use as he wished. Berger applied the grant to purchase then-rare GPS (global positioning satellite) coordinates from the U.S. government for the existing archeological sites in Southern Africa, and to acquire precious satellite maps of the region from NASA. He concentrated his mapping research of the area around Gladysvale, where he made his previous discoveries, but Berger found the information less valuable than he had hoped. The Cradle of Humankind was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, but with no new discoveries to report, further paleoanthropological exploration in Southern Africa ground to a halt. Lee Berger began to devote more energy to bringing his work, and that of his colleagues, to a wider public. He shared his thinking on the current state of early hominid research in his 2000 book In the Footsteps of Eve: The Mystery of Human Origins.
Meanwhile, Berger’s research continued in other directions, some far from Africa. In 2006, he made a startling discovery while vacationing in Palau, an island nation of the Western Pacific. In Palau, Berger uncovered fossilized remains of diminutive adults, human-like in some proportions, but unlike modern humans in facial structure. Berger returned to make further excavations, and comparison of these remains with earlier discoveries in Flores, Indonesia have generated a continuing controversy over the development of man in the Western Pacific. One interpretation of these findings suggests the existence of a now-extinct strain of genus Homo at a later date than previously supposed.
In 2007, Lee Berger’s career in Southern Africa was at a low ebb. Many of his colleagues believed the region’s fossil fields were played out, and institutional support for further excavation had virtually dried up. Even in his own department at Witwatersrand, there was widespread sentiment that the future lay in more sophisticated technological analysis of existing specimens rather than field work searching for new ones. The institute Berger had headed at Witwatersrand was reorganized under new leadership. Berger was appointed Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at Witwatersrand, but he longed to resume field exploration.
In his spare time, Berger began toying with Google Earth, a popular application for viewing aerial photography. When he entered the GPS coordinates he had purchased at such great expense in the late ’90s, he was shocked to find that they did not correspond accurately with the sites he knew so well by sight. He eventually realized that the U.S. government had deliberately included inaccuracies in the GPS data for security reasons. With the new tools available in the 21st century, he examined aerial photographs of the Cradle of Humankind and began to see patterns among the known fossil sites. These in turn led him to surmise the existence of other, unexplored fossil deposits. When he explored the area in person, armed with this new data, he noted dozens of previously unknown caves, hundreds of potential excavation sites, a rich and untouched source of fossils throughout an area that had been explored continuously since 1935.
On August 15, 2008, Berger returned to one of these sites with a doctoral student and his young son, Matthew. Within hours of their arrival, nine-year-old Matthew found a rock containing the fossilized clavicle of an unknown hominid. When Berger examined the rock, he found a jaw and canine tooth as well. Nearby were more teeth and a shoulder blade. What they had found were the remains of a previously unknown species of hominid that lived nearly two million years ago. In subsequent visits, they recovered the skull of the original specimen, a juvenile male, as well as partial remains of two adults of the species, male and female, and three infants.
This site, which Berger named Malapa (“home” in the language of the indigenous Sotho people) has produced the most complete sets of early hominid skeletons ever assembled. The location of the fossils, formerly a natural well, also yielded numerous animal remains, including those of an extinct saber-toothed cat. Berger named the previously unknown species Australopithecus sediba (“Australopithecus of the well”). These creatures had long ape-like arms, with articulate hands capable of using tools, and long legs, with feet and hip bones suitable for walking upright. They may represent a transitional stage between the ape-like Australopithecus africanus and the more human Homo habilis or Homo erectus, the tool-making predecessors of modern man. Regardless of their exact position in the family tree, Berger’s discovery has greatly expanded our understanding of the variation among early hominids and stimulated a new wave of productive exploration in Southern Africa.
Continuing his interest in communicating these discoveries to the general public, Berger has written numerous books, including The Official Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind, and a book for younger readers, The Skull in the Rock, which he hopes will inspire another generation of adventurers to seek the origins of humankind.
In Autumn 2013, Lee Berger led an excavation at the Rising Star cave complex in the Cradle of Humankind, and recovered more than 1500 hominid fossils, representing 15 or more individuals. The species of these remains could not be immediately identified, but the condition and completeness of the skeletons was unprecedented. After two years of study and analysis, Berger concluded that all were specimens of the same unfamiliar species. Berger named the species Homo naledi (star man) for the site where they were found, Dinaledi (many stars), in the Sesotho (Southern Sotho) language.
Many more fossils remain to be excavated from the site, but Berger’s analysis so far has led him to conclude that these specimens are well over 2.5 million years old, and represent a very early stage of the genus Homo. These hominids possessed long legs and feet suitable for walking long distances, as well as long fingers adapted to climbing and swinging from tree branches. The brain of H. naledi was no larger than a baseball, but the development of the hands and wrists would have enabled these hominids to use tools. Most interestingly, the orderly arrangement of the Naledi skeletons suggests ritual burial, a practice long thought to be the property of a much later stage of human evolution.
In November 2021, an international team of researchers, led by Berger, revealed the first partial skull of a Homo naledi child that was found in the remote depths of the Rising Star cave in Johannesburg, South Africa. The discovery of a hominin child skull is an extremely rare find in the fossil record as juvenile remains tend to be thin and extremely fragile. The child was found in an extremely remote passage of the Rising Star Cave System, some 12 meters beyond the Dinaledi Chamber, the original site of discovery of the first Homonaledi remains that were revealed to the world in 2015. Discoveries from the subterranean cave system prompted paleoanthropologists to rethink what made us human. New findings revealed that a small-brained human relative known as Homo naledi buried its dead and carved symbols on walls inside the system. Both these behaviors had been previously associated with our species or the big-brained Neanderthals with which we interbred. The significance, and intended meaning of the symbols inside Rising Star, has yet to be determined, but the act of engraving intentional designs is widely considered a major cognitive step in human evolution.
In March 2023, Berger was appointed National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence and staff member. He was also promoted to Director of The Centre for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at University of the Witwatersrand — the first head of the Centre. In August 2023, Berger’s latest literary work, Cave of Bones, will hit the shelves. This captivating book documents Berger’s exhilarating journey as he pushes the boundaries of his physical and spiritual capacities to explore the spaces once inhabited by Homo naledi, a hominin species that likely lived alongside our own.
In his first years in South Africa, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger made the first major finds in the region in almost half a century. He became one of the youngest men in his field to lead a major research institute. In 1997, he received the first National Geographic Society Prize for Research and Exploration for his studies of human evolution.
But ten years later, exploration in Southern Africa had come to a halt. Berger’s colleagues believed the fossil fields were exhausted, that everything worth finding had already been found. When Lee Berger reviewed aerial photography of the region made newly available on the Internet, he saw things his peers had missed. The existing fossil sites fell into a pattern that suggested the existence of unexplored caves and potential sites for further exploration.
Berger’s subsequent visits to the area proved his surmise correct. The terrain was riddled with unexplored caves and other possible excavation sites. In 2008, Lee Berger uncovered multiple specimens of a previously unknown species of hominid, a possible link between the apelike Australopithecus and our own remote ancestors. Today, he leads his profession, and his discoveries continue to cast new light on the origins of humankind.
You made one of your greatest discoveries, the remains of Australopithecus sediba, right after what you might call the lowest point in your career, at the end of 2007. There wasn’t a lot of support for new exploration at that time. Can you tell us how that turned around?
In that holiday period of 2007 I was sitting at home, and I’m not sure whether it was the lowest point, but it was a point where I was truly trying to find where — what was I going to manifest as next?It was going to be very hard to continue to get the kind of resources to fund risk-taking exploration.People were clearly not believing that there were other sites out there.There were talks of not even allowing digging at new sites because they clearly had failed.And I had almost been a demonstration of that over 17 years.It was at that moment that I became the last human being on earth to discover Google Earth. There I was, surfing and looking at these satellite images that were free.And I have to explain why that was such an epiphany for me.In the late 1990s, I had been awarded a prize for research and exploration by the National Geographic Society.It had been done by some of these other research and discoveries that I had made in the middle 1990s and early 1990s in South Africa.Bill Grosvenor, who was then the CEO, and Bill Allen the editor, took me into a grand office and said, “You can have anything you want, within reason, to do anything you want as part of this prize,” a research grant.I knew exactly what I wanted to do.I wanted to apply technology, because right then there was this incredible new technology that was available.One was handheld GPSs that said that you could place your position with coordinates within like 15 meters on Planet Earth.That was amazing to me.We used to have to measure by triangulation our position on a map until that point.
Also, satellite maps were being made available by NASA, 30-meter pixels each one. They were hugely expensive — thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars. That’s what I did. I bought these things. I started out exploring Southern Africa for three years, and I found quite a few new sites outside of the region. I mapped through all the existing sites with this incredible new technology, and I ended up concentrating specifically on an area just outside of Johannesburg, Gladysvale, where I had discovered these first hominids years before, and where all these big discoveries were. I discovered four new cave sites that had fossils in them. Now that’s pretty good, because there had only been about 14 or 15 known. So I had added a percentage, and this is probably the most explored place on the continent of Africa for these things. I started working, and, of course, you know the end of that story, because I didn’t find much in those sites as we moved into the 21st century. So it was that context that I suddenly was looking at free satellite images — not with 15-meter resolution, but 5-meter resolution of this area.
After looking at my house, like everyone does the first time they do it, and then after looking at some of the places you know, I saw that little window over to the left that you could put GPS coordinates in.And I had some of the most expensively obtained GPS coordinates on the planet to put in that window. I typed them in, and I saw what everyone sees, an amazing Google Earth phenomenon: flying from the sky and popping right down onto the point that that coordinate is. And my coordinate, the first one — which I put in as Gladysvale, because I knew it better than any place on earth — landed on nothing.It landed hundreds and hundreds of meters away from Gladysvale.The second point I put in, the same thing.The third? They were all useless.They were all wrong.I had wasted three years of my life.I had wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of research grant.It did not take me long to Google why the U.S. government had put deliberate error into those GPSs in the late 1990s: for military purposes.And the errors that were inherent in those handheld GPSs had created a compounding error. Well that was like adding “low to low” on my life at that moment.So I spent the rest of December and January moving those points physically on Google, from where they landed to where I knew they should be, because I could see these sites.I could see what they looked like.I knew where they were.I could locate them.
That must have been extremely meticulous and difficult work.
Lee Berger: It was one of the most important moments in the entire story of my scientific career, because it was in correcting that error that I began to see patterns, that I began to see that they fell in linear structures. I began to see the fossil sites clustered together. Caves might be in more random situations. I also began to see and learn what a site would look like — all the different varieties. They didn’t all look the same. And I began to think that if that’s a site, that looks like a site, and this looks like a site. I knew it could not be true. I knew it could not be true because I had walked that area myself. So had everyone else though, in the field, for the last 80 years. But it was driving me insane. So much so, that in March of that year, I printed out a little A4 sheet of targets. And I did what every human does: I started as far away from a place I knew best — the site of Gladysvale — because I knew there was nothing there. All the way in the city limits of Krugersdorp, 20 kilometers away from that point, where these rocks sort of faded out into the urban sprawl. And on the first day out, I found 21 new sites. By July of that year I had found 600 new sites, including well more than 40 fossil-bearing sites. Imagine this in the magnitude — if we went from 20 known sites to 60 — and I was blown away. If that error had not occurred, if those GPS points had been right, I would have never gone through that process. I would have accepted that the terrain was as we see it, and I would have never — so if I had not failed in that earlier expedition, what I’m about to tell you happened to me would never have happened. On the first of August — I had moved back in by then to the area around Gladysvale — and of course, by then the entire area was covered with sites: caves, fossil-bearing sites. They were all over the place. We just missed them, all of us.
Were people following your work at this point? Did you have their attention?
Lee Berger: The community of scientists — particularly the geologists — I began to rope into this. And I really thought that was where my career was going to go. This is a big deal. I’m suddenly offering decades — hundreds of years — of resources to the science. So I corralled together a couple of geologists, but no paleoanthropologists. You know, it is surprising how many people are risk-averse in that sort of thing. And I really thought the contribution was going to be this mass of new potential to our database. And on the first of August of 2008, I was almost on the last sweep of the entire region. I was as close to Gladysvale as you get. I was one kilometer away. One-and-a-half hills. And I saw some targets on Google Earth. I used to sit on Google Earth the night before deciding where I was going to go. I’d find my targets, and then my dog Tau and I would get in the car and there we’d go to that area. Out we’d go, and I’d walk it, target to target, looking at the terrain, finding things, marking one’s map, taking pictures. And that’s what I did on that morning. But I knew I wasn’t going to find anything that morning, even though I had these targets, because I had been in this valley. I’d been in this valley in the late 1990s as part of that National Geographic expedition, and I’d found one of those fossil sites in this valley. I had been there. But you know, I was following this system by then, and it was almost like a zen-like exercise to go out. I was disappointed if I didn’t find 20 caves a day when I was out there. And I drove in this valley, and drove near these targets, which were only 50 yards off the road.
I knew the moment I stopped the car I was going to make a discovery, because I could see an old lime trackway that somehow I had missed in the two or 300 times I had driven down that road before. Tau and I got out, followed this trackway up around this really rough terrain.Dolomite’s hard to walk on.The animals had carved a path along this old lime miner trackway, because it was where they could walk too.I came to an old game fence.It’s in a wilderness area.And there I crawled through this hole in the fence, and in front of me was the site of Malapa.It was just a little hole in the ground with some trees.And the first rock I turned over had an antelope arm in it.That’s rare.Big mammal fossils one kilometer from where I’d spent the last 17 years working and I hadn’t seen a fossil site right here!But I was on a mapping expedition, took photographs and notes, looked around, saw there were fossils, went up the hill, and found 46 new caves.Right in the middle of the most explored area on Planet Earth.I was shocked.
I went back to the lab, and this incredible tragedy occurred to us.
A little more than a week before this all occurred, the young man who was going to take over this position as director was killed in a motorcycle accident in London.And so here we were sitting with a lab that had already shifted direction, new post-docs hired that were going to be trained in lab things, and no leader.I was in my office, and I don’t remember exactly what I was doing that morning, but a young man named Job Kibii came into my office, sat down across from me, and said, “Would you be my postdoctoral supervisor?”And I looked up at him— it was a tragic moment — and I said, “No.You’re our lab guy.You want to be a lab guy.I’m not a lab guy.I’m a field guy.”But I’d just found this site and it was really bothering me.“If you want to learn to be a field guy, let’s go look and see what this site has to offer, and if it’s what I think it is, I’ll teach you to be a field guy.”
Lee Berger: So on the 15th of August we go back to the site. My dog Tau, Job, my then-nine-year-old son, Matthew. We arrive there and I’m telling them the story of how I discovered it. We walk up the hill, walk to the site. There’s a little hole there where miners had found this site a hundred years ago or so, and they put in two, three dynamite blasts. And then they’d done something that I’ve never seen before — they left it. They knocked a few rocks loose. One of the ones is the one that I’d found earlier. And I said, “Okay, guys, go find fossils. And when you find one, call me. I’ll identify it and let’s see what the site has to offer.” And with that Matthew and Tau are gone — phfft! — off into the bush. And Job and I were standing at the hole, and I said, “You know, Job, I think that the miners left this because they probably did just what I did. They probably found it first, they start drilling holes and stuff, the foreman or someone walks up the hill, he finds all these other caves. And by the time he gets back, they drill the holes, he blasts, he doesn’t see anything worthwhile, and he says, ‘Okay, move it up here.’ They destroyed almost every one of those other 46 caves — destroyed.” And as I finished saying that, Matthew shouts, “Dad, I found a fossil!” He was 15 meters off the site in high grass. I could see he was holding a small rock. And just for a moment I almost didn’t go look, because I knew what he would have found. He would have found an antelope fossil, because at that time the statistical numbers were, for every one of these early hominids we find — these human ancestor pieces — we find about 250,000 pieces of antelopes. We just don’t find these things. My nine-year-old son, encouraging fossil hunting. And I started walking towards him, and five meters away I knew that his and my life were going to change forever, because he was holding a small rock. You have to visualize and crouch down. And there, on the outside of it, was an S-shaped bone.