In a real-life accident straight out of Indiana Jones, a young boy trips and falls while chasing his trusted dog Tau through high grass somewhere in remote South Africa and stumbles over the fossil remains an ancient boy -a new hominid species that lived two million years ago. The remains have been classified as Australopithecus sediba, a new species of early man that’s likely a descendant of Australopithecus africanus. Geologists estimated that the individuals lived 1.78 to 1.95 million years ago, probably closer to the older date, a period when australopithecines and early species of Homo were contemporaries.
What’s even more intriguing is how the boys father, Dr. Berger, used Google Earth technology to map identified caves and fossil deposits and to discover new caves via satellite imagery: “With the help of the navigation facility and high-resolution satellite imagery in Google Earth, Professor Berger went on to find almost 500 previously unidentified caves and fossil sites, even though the area is one of the most explored in Africa. One of these fossil sites yielded the remarkable discovery of a new species, Australopithecus sediba. This species was an upright walker that shared many physical traits with the earliest known species of the genus homo — and its introduction into the fossil record might answer some key questions about our earliest ancestry in Africa.”
Nine-year-old Matthew Berger dashed after his dog Tau into the high grass here one sunny morning, tripped over a log and stumbled onto a major archeological discovery. Scientists announced Thursday that he had found the bones of a new hominid species that lived almost two million years ago during the fateful, still mysterious period spanning the emergence of the human family.
“Dad, I found a fossil!” Matthew said he cried out to his father, Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist, who had been searching for hominid bones just a hill-and-a-half away for almost two decades. Fossil hunters have profitably scoured these rolling grasslands north of Johannesburg since the 1930s.
Matthew held in his hands the ancient remains of a 4-foot-2 boy who had been just a few years older than Matthew himself. Dr. Berger, with the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and his fellow researchers have since found much more of the boy’s skeleton, including his extraordinarily well-preserved skull, and three other individuals. South Africa’s children will compete to name the boy.
Geologists estimated that the individuals lived 1.78 to 1.95 million years ago, probably closer to the older date, a period when australopithecines and early species of Homo were contemporaries. Scientists not involved in the research debate whether the bones belong to the Homo or Australopithecus genus, but most agreed that the discovery of the skeletons at the Malapa site here in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site where dolomitic limestone caves contain fossils of ancient animals and hominids, was a major advance in the early fossil history of hominids.