Discovering Homo Naledi: Journey to Find a Human Ancestor, Part 1 | Nat Geo Live


Lee:I’d come to
South Africa,
I’d launched myself
into exploration.
And out I wentlooking to combine
these technologies
satellite imagery
and handheld GPS.
I started mapping sites.I saw that cave sites
formed in linear lines.
I saw fossil sites
clustered together.
It intrigued me so much,
I put together a list of targets
printed them on an A-4 sheet,
loaded my dog into the car
and on the first day out I found
21 new cave sites.
It became an
addictive process.
By July of that year, 2008I’d found more than
600 cave sites.
I discovered more than
60 new fossil sites.
And I thought if this was
my legacy, it’s fantastic.
This will be my gift to future
generations of scientists.
( applause ) These discoveries
began in a situation that I found myself in
back in the 1990’s. A situation where exploration
appeared to have been finished in the field of
paleoanthropology in the search for human origins. I found my own university closing my
exploration program. I found myself in a situation of assisting in a job search
to find a new director,to push the paleoanthropologythe human origin study
in a new direction:
Towards technology.Towards the application of
using modern technology
to study existing fossils,
not to find new ones.
That young man that was
going to take over my directorship position and
lead us in a new direction was killed in a motorcycle
accident in London. But we had already invested
in that direction. We had post-doctoral students,
computers, everything and one of them, a young
Kenyan named Job Kibii came into my office and said would I be his
post-doctoral supervisor now with this
tragedy I said, “No. Because I can’t be. You’re a lab guy,
I’m a field guy. But I’ve just found this
site that’s bugging me. So, if you want to learn
to be a field guy let’s go out to the site and
see what it has to offer.”August 15th 2008Job, myself, my dog Tau, my
then nine-year old son, Matthew
walked up to the site.I got to the edge of it,
we’re looking around
I said, “Go find fossils.”And with that off
Matthew and Tau went.
And I was talking
to Job, and I said “You know, I don’t know why
they left this little hole. Miners had actually found this and just put a couple
of blasts into it. But then they’d left it.” And as I finished saying thatMatthew, who is now
15 yards off the site
in the middle of grass says“Dad, I found a fossil.”I almost didn’t go and look.But he’s my nine-year old son,
and I like all of you you want to encourage
fossil hunting so I started walking
towards him… ( audience laughter ) …and this is what I saw.And, five meters awayI knew his and my life were
going to change forever.
Because sticking out of
the side of that rock
I saw a hominid clavicle.Matthew says I cursed,
I don’t remember that. And I turned the rock over and there sticking out of the back
of it was a jaw and a tooth and that would lead to
an extraordinary time.Matthew had found a skeleton.One of the rarest things
you can ever find.
That skeleton would be
part of this skull.
We would eventually
find another one
and then another one,
and then another one
and then another one.We would call that
little site, Malapa and it would for a
moment in history be one of, if not the
richest early hominid site on the continent of Africa.Skeletons in remarkable
pristine condition.
The organic material.I threw myself into this.This was a
paleoanthropological
equivalent of winning
the lottery.
We don’t find these things.Over the years following
that, 2011, 2012, 2013 we would have the time
of our scientific lives. Something like 15 papers
in the journal Science. More in the journal Nature. Dozens of peer-reviewed
articles. It was living a
scientific dream. It was our version of
a scientific lottery all from a little site
that looks like that. A hole in the ground. And I realized at that moment, this was about
June-July of 2013, that I had made an error. That error was pretty
fundamental and pretty simple. I had not been exploring
since Matthew had said “Dad, I found a fossil.” I had literally won the
lottery, why would you? Fair enough to say that I was putting together
this great scientific team we were producing this research but I had not gone back
out and gone to those hundreds and hundreds and
hundreds of sites that I had discovered
walking those hills.And so, I decided to go
back out in the field.
And if you can imagine
that this landscape
is less than 45 minutes outside
of the city of Johannesburg.
It looks like that.And when you look at
that you probably see
one these beautiful,
rolling African landscapes.
But that’s not what I see.I see a giant block
of Swiss cheese. Because underneath that
Dolomitic limestone are a network of hundreds
of kilometers of caves. Well, most of them are not
these big cavernous-type caves that some of you may envision
when you hear the word cave. Most of them are these
small narrow trenches and splits in the ground, forming along ancient
fault lines. And I was thinking,
“how am I going to do this.” I had done cave exploration in
this region back in the 1990’s. And I had looked and
squeezed my way through these things in the
90’s, and had not found much. And as I was thinking of how
I would move forward with an exploration program to take my surface images
and move them underground a pirate walked into my office.He was a former student of mine.
Pedro Boschoff.
He had gone off diamond
prospecting in Central Africa and failed,
and had come back destitute. And said, “I made a mistake.
Paleoanthropology is my love please can you give me a job,
I want to get back into it.” And I said,
“You know, your timing’s good.” ( audience laughter ) “I want to get underground.” And Pedro quickly found out
something that I already knew. That like me he had
no longer become physiologically appropriate for
much of this underground work. ( audience laughter ) These are narrow squeezes.But I said,
“You know, get out there
and go to areas
we know the best.”
I had learned something
from Malapa.
And so we went to
the caving club
and found two young men who were
physiologically appropriate. ( audience laughter )On the right was Rick Hunter,
who was a member of Mensa
who had been
kicked out of high school
for blowing up the
high school science lab
that is a true story,
and was working as a builder.
And on the left, Steve Tucker,
an accountant by day.
We showed them what
we were looking for. Kind of casts, photographs and sent them into some
of these deeper recesses.Steve and Rick
went into the site
that they expected
the least from.
Perhaps the best known
cave site in South Africa
if not in Africa.The Rising Star system.It was completely mapped.Or so they thought,
until they worked their way
on that late evening up an areaafter spending
four and a half hours
going through torturous sort of
little squeezes and crevasses
up a thing that’s called
Dragon’s Back on the map.
A series of collapses
that’s knife-edged.
They were 40 meters underground,
they climbed about 20 meters,
to look down a little slotthat was
seven and half inches wide.
Into the darkness and
of course they went down.
Down more than sixty feet
into this narrow slot.
Squeezing their way innot knowing if it was going
to open up at any time
and down you drop–at the bottom they entered
a little narrow passage.
And there they began
to immediately see
small white bits on the ground
that looked like bones.
They followed them in which led
to a slightly larger chamber.
And there they saw
material on the ground.
And they thought it
looked a lot like
what I’d told them
we were looking for.
October 1st 2013,
I was sitting at home.
The front intercom
at my gate went. I picked up the intercom
and there a voice said “You’re gonna wanna let us in.”
It was creepy just like that. -( audience laughter )
-( Lee chuckles ) It was Pedro. And I opened the gate
eventually and let them in. And there Steve
opened up his laptop and I saw the most
extraordinary pictures I thought I would
never see in my life.