Lee Berger, headline-making paleoanthropologist, is an Eagle Scout

Homo-nalediBy now you’ve heard that scientists in South Africa have discovered the remains of Homo naledi.

What you may not know is the thrilling postscript to that story: Lee Berger, the American paleoanthropologist leading the team, is a Distinguished Eagle Scout.

Berger even spoke to Scouts at the 2013 National Scout Jamboree, answering questions about his exciting line of work and inspiring the next generation of paleoanthropologists.

Berger and his team found the remains of Homo naledi — more than 1,550 bones in all, including those belonging to newborns, children and adults — inside a South African cave called Rising Star.

In order to carefully remove the bones, as explained in this NPR story, Berger needed people who could fit through a 7.5-inch opening and drop down to a chamber 30 feet below.

He couldn’t squeeze through, so he “advertised for research assistants on Facebook — for skinny scientists who weren’t claustrophobic. Six women took the job.”

Once inside, the researchers used paintbrushes and toothpicks to carefully remove the fossils and transport them out of the cave.

There’s a lot the scientists don’t yet know, such as how long ago Homo naledi lived. But there’s a lot they do:

  • The creatures were thin and less than 5 feet tall
  • Their brains were about a third the size of modern-day human brains
  • They had feet and hands like ours and walked in a humanlike way
  • The bodies may have been placed there as part of some sort of ritual

“Homo naledi was deliberately disposing of its dead in a repeated, ritualized fashion in this deep underground chamber,” Berger told NPR.

You can learn more about Berger’s team’s discoveries in the October issue of National Geographic Magazine and in a two-hour NOVA/National Geographic documentary airing Sept. 16 on PBS.

This won’t be the last you’ll hear from Berger, of course. Now he and other researchers begin the exciting work of learning more about Homo naledi and sharing their findings with the world. The potential is huge.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times,”Berger told the New York Times, “Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage.”

Berger at the 2013 National Scout Jamboree

In 2013, Lee Berger visited the National Eagle Scout Association tent at the jamboree. He was a VIP Eagle who addressed the Scouts in attendance, and you can watch the inspiring video below:

Further reading

Read Berger’s interview with Boys’ Life magazine


Homo naledi photo from eLife journal.