A few months ago, I reviewed my now-favorite nonfiction book, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey. I had always been curious about human origins, but that book really ignited my interest in the topic of paleoanthropology: the study of ancient hominid fossils. At the end of my Lucy review, I wrote,
My problem now is I don’t know what to read next. I want to be caught up on all of the discoveries between 1981 and 2019. . . . I have a small collection of other books on human evolution, and I’m very open to suggestions!
After reading a handful of books on other topics, I decided I needed to get back to my study of human origins. It turns out that Almost Human was the perfect book for that, as it was released only in 2017, and it tells the story of discoveries that took place in 2008 and 2013. As opposed to Lucy, which was published fourteen years before I was born, I enjoyed reading the stories of Almost Human and thinking, “This discovery happened on the day we got our cat!” and “They discovered this species at the same time that I started dating my husband!”
Although this book by Lee Berger and John Hawks is called Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story, it is actually about two discoveries . . . of two different hominid species . . . by the same guy. (Technically, unlike Johanson’s Lucy story, Berger didn’t stumble across either fossil on his own, but both were found by his team.)
Lee Berger’s passion for paleoanthropology got started in the same way mine did, but it took him much further than it’s taken me. Like me, Berger got the chance to meet Johanson soon after reading Lucy, but while I only got my book signed, Berger was invited to work with Johanson’s team in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Better him than me, though; I can’t stand the heat!
Part One of the book, “Going to South Africa,” gives the reader a background of the major discoveries of hominid fossils up to the 2000’s, as well as a background of Berger’s work and the state of the field of paleoanthropology. We’re primed for the merging of the two timelines by meeting notable figures like Raymond Dart, Mary and Louis Leakey, and their discoveries.
We also get a glimpse of Berger building up his impressive resume and his portfolio of bones. Reminiscent of the controversy between Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey, however, was the rift between Berger and many of the older scientists. It was a classic clash of the generations, disagreeing on whether they should abandon their trusted ways of work for new, unfamiliar methods.
Going forward in time, Berger found himself in the situation that he started his book with: his son Matthew’s discovery of a hominid collarbone at a site in the Cradle of Humankind in Africa that Berger would later name Malapa. Part Two of the book describes the excavation of this cave, and especially the scientists’ confusion about why they found this skeleton where they did: meters away from the mouth of the cave. The reader gets to watch as Berger and his team compare the fossils they’ve found with others of known species, only to find no matches at all. Thus, Australopithecus sediba was born.
The discovery of this new human ancestor (or cousin) was amazing, of course, but its story pales in comparison to the next species that Berger’s team discovered. Against what might seem logical, Berger allowed a former student to send two amateur cavers into a cave system that had yet to be explored. Berger was persuaded partially because they were, well, of narrow stature. He wasn’t being unnecessarily discriminatory, though: these caves were tight, and only the thinnest cavers could squeeze through.
Without giving too much away, I’ll tell you that what they found in that cave is what the title of the book is referring to when it says “The Discovery The Changed Our Human Story.” The massive expedition that ended up excavating that cave recovered more hominid fossils than had been found in any single site in Africa to date. What’s more, the way that the fossils lay in the cave reveals a clue to the genesis of one of humanity’s most widely practiced traditions today.
This unearthing story left the reader waiting with bated breath to see foremost whether the cavers would make it out of the cave, and secondly what they had with them.
In the end, as the first half of the title suggests, we have Lee Berger to thank for not one, but two new hominid species discoveries. This time, it wasn’t an australopithecine, but an ancient human species: Homo naledi. Unlike other hominid family trees, the one in Almost Human doesn’t list anything, including sediba or naledi, as a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. It shows only cousins, with many gaps yet to be filled in. One of the many takeaways from this book is that just when you think you’ve looked everywhere for fossils, look again. You never know what’s right beneath your feet.
Featured image depicts homo naledi (left) photograph by Mark Thiessen (National Geographic) and australopithecus sediba (right) photograph by Brent Stirton (National Geographic). Both sculptures by John Gurche.