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SCHS graduate Berger discovers new species of ancestors
Lee Berger has fond memories of growing up in Screven County and living in the Bay Branch community.
Known as “Rod” Berger during his days as student in the Screven County School System, he took this education very seriously.
Berger was named the STAR Student in 1984 as he chose Dr. James MacLeod as his STAR Teacher.
Berger treasures the academia of the Screven County schools and, to this day, continues to rave about his localized education.
“Screven County High School. I have lots of degrees, but that’s the best education I have ever received,” Berger said.
That’s quite a statement coming from the world’s most renown paleoanthropologist who, with a history of monumental discoveries in South Africa, has recently trumped other findings.
Berger, using a tip his team received from some spelunkers two years prior, discovered an extraordinary finding through a crack in a limestone wall deep in the Rising Star cave.
There were lots and lots of ancient bones.
Those remains covered the floor beyond the tiny opening. The scientists deemed this a large, dark chamber for the dead of a previously unidentified species of the early human lineage — Homo naledi.
The new species was announced last week by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Berger, who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“If I had to rank this find on a scale of 1 to 10, I would have to borrow a ‘Spinal Tap’ line and call it an ‘11,’” Berger told the Sylvania Telephone via a phone call from South Africa.
The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.
Berger said 1,500 fossil elements were located for what is now the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the biggest anywhere worldwide.
“We found bones of the very young to the very old and everywhere in between,” Berger told the Telephone.
The professor who studied at Georgia Southern University -- then Georgia Southern College -- after graduating from Screven County High School said his initial reaction of the find is not something that can be printed in a family newspaper.
“Contrary to popular belief, scientists are human too,” Berger said with a laugh. “I knew it was something extraordinary.”
Berger said the find gave him a perspective on when Howard Carter found Tutankhamun’s Tomb.
Along with the introduction of a new member of the early human family, the discovery hints at some early hominins purposely deposited bodies their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber.
This recent finding is Berger’s second one of significant lineage in the last five years. Berger’s previous headline discovery was published in 2010 about cave deposits at the Cradle of Humankind site, 30 miles outside of Johannesburg.
Berger found fewer fossils that time, but enough to discern that he was looking at a new species that he named Australopithecus sediba. Geologists said the individuals lived 1.78 million to 1.95 million years ago, when australopithecines and early species of Homo were contemporaries.
Berger said it has not been pinpointed of how old these new findings of bones are, but estimated them to be as old as 2.5 million years old.
The field work and two years of analysis for Berger’s latest finding were supported by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation.
National Geographic Magazine recently published its piece on Berger and his team and a documentary on the discovery was to air Wednesday on PBS.
Berger said the discovery was a team effort and it was not about the fame, which he admitted has been quite shocking to him.
“It was the most tweeted item and for a moment science was the most talked about item instead of the Kardashians,” Berger said. “Science is the greatest thing you can do.”
He said hundreds of years of research will be done on this discovery.
“It is a project that will go on well after I am gone,” Berger said.
Scientists on the team commented on the contrasting anatomical features, including more modern-looking jaws and teeth and feet, that warrant the hominin’s placement as a species in the genus Homo, instead of Australopithecus, the genus that includes the famous Lucy species that lived 3.2 million years ago.
Berger said he developed his initiative to seek out and find things from his days in Screven County. He said he remembers the days when he hunted for arrowheads.
“I think about you all the time,” said Berger of people back in his hometown. “Facebook is a wonderful thing that allows me to keep up with what’s happening.
“I give lectures all over the world and I come back to growing up in Screven County and Sylvania,” Berger said. “It taught me the value of keep your eyes open for things. It gives you an appreciation for the world out there.”
Berger said his line of work is very competitive, but his upbringing has kept him a “decent human being.”
“This is a dangerous place,” said Berger, whose team members will sometimes need to squeeze through 7 1/2 inch areas of caves that are in hard rock deep under ground.
“It’s a place where you have to take your helmet off to fit your head through,” he said. “But it obviously pays off.”
While his schedule is very much booked, Berger said he does hope to come back to Screven County for a visit next year. He said his son is about to start his college tour of which university he would like to attend.
Berger said universities in Georgia are on the list.