Lee Berger is a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand recently named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. By making the 2016 list, Berger is in the company of Mark Zuckerberg, Hillary Clinton, Leonardo Di Caprio and Charlize Theron. An award-winning palaeoanthropologist, he made some incredible discoveries about humankind. Here are 8 things you didn’t know about top influencer Lee Berger.
Berger found the most complete early hominin fossils reported to date, which helped the world discover a new species among our human ancestors. Berger found that the skeleton contained features that were both apelike and human like, making it a species of human ancestor that existed right on the cusp of human evolution.
Berger was part of the crew that found one of the most abundant early hominin sites in Africa. In 2013 and 2014, Berger and his colleagues excavated over 1,500 human bone fragments near the Swartkrans World Heritage Site in South Africa. They determined that the bones were from an entirely new species, according to Britannica.com.
When Berger was on vacation with his family in Palau, he found a group of human skeletons that were remarkably small. Some researchers say the bones simply belonged to the pygmy population, but Berger’s analysis showed their characteristics predated the pygmy time, says Britannica.com.
Berger grew up in the rural town of Sylvania, Georgia, U.S., that had only 800 residents. His love for exploring developed when he was a child and would walk around local plowed fields picking up Native American artifacts. His family did not, at first, understand his desire to be an explorer, he told Pbs.org.
Berger’s research has discovered several highly populated areas of skeletons. He hypothesizes that humans have been burying their dead for far longer than we imagined, says Pbs.org. Berger suggests that these groups of skeletons are together because their family members would drag their bodies to one site to protect them from the elements.
Most paleoanthropologists take years–sometimes nearly 20 years–to organize their findings and publish a book. In 2010, Berger discovered a new species called the Australopithecus sediba–a small-brained bipedal ape. By 2013, he published his book on the species. Some professors have criticized Berger, saying that this pace resulted in sloppy work.
During his undergraduate studies, Berger met Prof. Johanson, who worked on one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world–Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Immediately after graduating college, Berger joined Johanson’s crew in Tanzania and on his very first morning in Africa, he found a type of bird fossil that many researchers wait their entire careers to find, says Achievement.org.
In 1997 National Geographic awarded Berger a research grant for his discovery of a previously unknown species. Berger was told to spend the grant however he wanted, and he used it to buy GPS coordinates from the U.S. government for archaeological sites in Southern Africa, as well as rare satellite maps of that area from NASA, says Achievement.org.