In August of 2008, a new palaeoanthropological site was discovered in the Cradle of Humankind (CoH) World Heritage Site, Gauteng Province, South Africa. The Cradle has been long regarded as one of the most important fossil areas relevant to human evolution ever since the Taung Child was discovered in 1924. However, in recent years, consensus within the scientific community was that the area was played out; all of the sites that were left to be discovered had been discovered already. For years, the focus had been on analysis of the fossils already excavated, rather than on discovering new ones. No doubt about it, this new site, named Malapa (“our home” or “homestead”), was an anomaly. The story of Malapa is how an unlikely technology called Google Earth, in the hands of a maverick scientist (with a little help from his young son), helped uncover one of the most incredible sites in early human evolution, reigniting discovery in one of the most explored fossil regions on Earth. This extraordinary feat was only made possible by looking with new eyes at old questions to spot what Professor Lee Berger calls “the anomaly,” the thing that didn’t fit, but was hidden in plain sight!
"Dad, I found a fossil!"
These five words, exclaimed by 9-year-old Matthew Berger on August 15, 2008, have gone down in palaeoanthropological history. Matthew had accompanied his dad, Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and another Wits post-doctoral researcher to evaluate the prospects of a potential new fossil site called Malapa (“our home” or “homestead”). While the grown-ups got down to business, young Matthew sought to burn off some energy with the family’s Rhodesian Ridgeback, Tau. Somewhere in his exuberance in exploring the bush around the site, Matthew tripped. In righting himself, he saw a fossil sticking out of rock that was unlike the many antelope fossils he had found; it was a hominin clavicle (collarbone), the first of an unknown species, Australopithecus sediba (sediba meaning “wellspring”). Barely suppressing a growing excitement, he called to his dad to report the find.
Matthew’s discovery has thrilled adults and children alike, the latter because it has shown that you are never too young to make a big difference. But the full truth of the discovery of Malapa is much bigger than just a lucky stumble. Like most scientific discoveries, there was a lot of long and hard behind-the-scenes work that led to that first fortunate find and lots of hard work to come after. On September 4, 2008, Berger discovered additional remains belonging to the individual associated with Matthew’s fossil clavicle within a nearby pit. He also discovered a second partial skeleton followed by substantial amounts of fossilized plant and animal matter. Excavations continue to this day at Malapa, the results of which are under analysis by novel means such as seen in this virtual laboratory.
Using satellite technology Berger had spent the 6 months previous to the discovery of Malapa surveying the area between the Cradle and nearby Pretoria for cave sites, fossil-bearing sites, archaeological sites, and geological features. And that in itself was actually a re-survey of the same area, work which he had undertaken between 1997 and 1999. The original survey had produced nothing spectacular, but Berger wasn’t ready to quit. He had a new weapon in his arsenal that had recently come to his attention. That secret weapon was the now well-known free application known as Google Earth.
Some people just love new technology, its glitter, its promise. These are the early-adopters, those that always have their ear to the ground, chasing the next technology trend. But for Berger, it goes beyond gadgetry, he scrutinizes each new fad that comes his way for some aspect that might be applied to his passion: finding and studying hominin fossils and then sharing that passion with the public. So, when Google launched its satellite imaging program in 2007, it reignited his interest in his past survey project. He began playing around with Google Earth using old data, plugging in known sites. But as he moved from larger areas to smaller features of the landscape, he noticed something odd. Things weren’t where they were supposed to be. GPS coordinates that belonged to ridges or “koppies” might suddenly show him valleys or “dongas.” Here was an anomaly.
Worth More Than Its Weight In Gold
In a way, the recent history of Malapa is that of the region. Mining. Johannesburg is a mining town , built on the gold rush that started in the late 1880s. Even today, the mining industry still remains a major employer. The tracks and blasts of limestone prospecting scar the landscape of Malapa. That chunk of rock in which Matthew found the first fossil of sediba? It was blasted out of the main pit and cast aside, much like the site itself. Malapa was not intensively mined, and not for gold, rather it was one of many sites prospected for limestone, but then abandoned for one reason or another.
Lime has a number of uses in such an environment, including refining and conditioning ores like gold, and even stabilizing the enormous amount of waste sludge produced by the gold mining industry. The landscape around the region is in many places dominated by large, white and yellow peaks that look like small mountains, but, in reality, are old mine dumps.
However, this legacy is giving way to a new appreciation of palaeo-landscapes. Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that the truth wealth of the region is in its ability to share with us secrets about our ancient past. These secrets continue to be unraveled by dedicated researchers both in South Africa and across the world.
The fossil of a child, found by a child, was nicknamed “Karabo,” meaning “the answer,” following a naming competition amongst South African school children. Just two short years after its discovery, on April 8, 2010, the multinational collaborative team behind Australopithecus sediba was able to share their findings. Three major waves of publications in the journal Science were devised by team leader, Lee Berger. The first series, in 2010, concerned the taxonomy and age of the new discovery. Following these in 2011 were papers dealing with the key regions of sediba’s anatomy, as well as work on further refining the dates of the fossils. Finally, all aspects of the anatomy and functional analyses were completed, as well as interpreted in terms of how each offers insight into sediba’s place in our lineage.