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What It Takes - Lee Berger

What It Takes - Lee Berger
What It Takes - Lee Berger
What It Takes - Lee Berger
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:52 LEE BERGER: These bones that we’re finding are of individuals that lay somewhere in our deep family tree.

00:01:03 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler, and this is Lee Berger. He hunts for human ancestors, and is transforming our understanding of evolution.

00:01:23 LEE BERGER: Every single person is interested to know who their parents are, who your grandparents are, who your great-grandparents are. Genealogy websites and that work are hugely popular. Why? The reason is because every human being on this planet at some point realizes that the people who they descend from in the past carry traits and behaviors that are now part of them.

00:01:54 And as we try to understand ourselves as humans, something only humans can do, we explore our inner selves. We are looking for causality, reason. We want to know not only why we look physically like this, but often, the more important, why we behave like this. Well, people like me just do that in the deep depths of time.

00:02:19 ALICE WINKLER: People like Lee Berger are called paleoanthropologists, but it would be hard to argue that there are many paleoanthropologists like Lee Berger. In 2008, he found a new species, an ancient relative of humans called Australopithecus sediba, or just sediba for short, and in September of 2015, Lee Berger made headlines again when he announced he’d found a cave filled with skeletons of another human relative no one had seen before, a species he named Homo naledi.

00:03:00 These two discoveries are forcing a rewrite of the story of evolution. Lee Berger sat down with the Academy of Achievement twice to talk about his pioneering work, once in 2012, and again soon after the Homo naledi news broke. Both times he was wearing the kind of leather jacket you might expect to see on an intrepid explorer, à la Indiana Jones. You can occasionally hear the creak of the leather as he talks.

00:03:32 And Berger’s stories are often jaw-dropping, filled with enough suspense and drama to warrant a Hollywood movie. But Berger has also known years of fruitless searching, epic dead ends, and academic acrimony. We will cover all of that and more in this episode, but it seemed more fun to start with the tales of action and adventure.

00:04:03 In the autumn of 2013, Berger was hoping to find new bones — well, new very old bones, in what’s known as the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, in South Africa. It’s where he’d found sediba several years before. This time he sent a team of cave explorers underground.

00:04:26 LEE BERGER: And on September 13, they went into one of the best-known cave systems in the entire region, if not all of South Africa, the Rising Star system. They went off the map, though, and they found a place at the top of a collapse we call Dragon's Back, and there they looked down a seven-and-a-half-inch slot. Now imagine, they're already a hundred feet underground. They're looking into this slot and, of course, what do they do?

00:04:51 They go into it, and they go down it about 50 feet and drop into a chamber, and in that chamber are bones scattered across the floor. They're bones that they thought were the kind that I was looking for, and their camera didn't function, so they had to come back out. It was about a four-and-a-half-hour trip at that time. They told me that they thought they'd found something, but I said, you know, "Bring me pictures, and I'm not going to believe you unless I see pictures of this," because I get that kind of thing all the time.

00:05:22 You know, people call you up and say they found a skull, and it's a plastic baby doll head or something that they got out of their backyard.

00:05:28 ALICE WINKLER: A few weeks went by. Nothing. Berger says he forgot about the whole thing, and then one night at about nine p.m., someone showed up at his door.

00:05:39 LEE BERGER: I answered the intercom, and Pedro, who was a student that I had enlisted as sort of the team leader, was on the other end. He said, "You're going to want to let us in," and I almost didn't because it was kind of a creepy voice like that. In they came, lifted up a laptop, and there I saw a picture that I thought I'd never see. There, sitting on this photograph, was a jawbone that I could see was a primitive hominid, but it was just lying there on the floor. Next picture was a skull.

00:06:07 Next picture, a series of bones of a body, it looked like. I'd never seen anything like that in all of my career, just lying there on the floor, and so we celebrated a little. I couldn't sleep that night. Picked up the phone at two a.m., called National Geographic.

00:06:25 ALICE WINKLER: National Geographic agreed to fund an expedition to bring up the bones, but because of the extremely tight and treacherous space the scientists were going to need to get through — remember, seven-and-a-half inches wide — Berger had to advertise for skinny little risk-taking scientists. He ended up with six volunteers who fit the bill, all women. He calls them underground astronauts.

00:06:54 LEE BERGER: Within a week, we had the richest hominid site ever discovered in the history of South Africa, and by the end of a 21-day expedition, we’d found more fossils of primitive hominids than had been discovered in the entire history of the search for human origins, and we left thousands in the chamber. It's probably the richest site ever discovered in the world. It's like our version of Tutankhamun's tomb.

00:07:23 ALICE WINKLER: Before the expedition began, Lee Berger explains, he thought that they were onto one skeleton, which would have been miracle enough.

00:07:32 LEE BERGER: You know, this is a field of fragments. We don’t find these things, and I'd already had my lottery ticket punched with sediba, you know. I had my skeletons from that discovery. I went after this second one with all the expectation of a fragmented skeleton that we would get out of some species. I never in the world expected that chamber to have that richness, and I really didn't expect to find another new species.

00:08:01 ALICE WINKLER: Berger and his team were able to put together enough complete skeletons - male, female, young and old, to confidently form a picture of what this creature looked like.

00:08:12 LEE BERGER: So the easiest way to sort of describe Homo naledi is, it's not a human, first. You've got to get that out of your mind, but it is standing on two legs. Imagine something standing on two legs. It's probably about five feet tall but ultrathin. If you were looking at it across a room, you'd immediately know you're not looking at a human, or if you are, there's something wrong with him because perched atop that five-foot body is going to be a pinhead, a head literally with a brain the size of an orange.

00:08:45 The shoulders would be high and almost a brought-up sort of — held like an ape would hold its shoulders, but then you'd notice that the arms would be more human proportioned. The hands would look like a human hand, except they'd be held and curved out at the end so that they wouldn't be flat. They would just be sort of more like an ape at the end but human proportioned.

00:09:11 When you got down to the hips, they'd be sort of flared, but again, a very slender body, and then long, skinny legs, which, at the very end of that, a humanlike foot.

00:09:23 ALICE WINKLER: Homo naledi may have just been discovered, but because of the huge number of bone fragments involved — over 1,500 pieces from 15 individuals — scientists probably already know more about it than almost any other species of human relative ever discovered. Berger says they don’t yet know its age because the tools now available aren’t well suited for the condition these bones were found in.

00:09:51 Homo naledi may have lived a hundred thousand years ago or as much as three million years ago. Either way, naledi’s physique and its behavior are providing scientists with crucial new insights.

00:10:06 LEE BERGER: And so, we can say that Homo naledi was a climber, but we don’t know what it was climbing. It has these very different hands than any kind of hominid we've ever seen before, with those long, curved fingers.

00:10:20 We know it's a long distance walker. It's got these long legs, and it's walking in much the way a human is. We can even see that in the way the foot and ankle are constructed, but it's doing it somehow a little bit differently because the pelvis is constructed differently. So you've got a climbing, long distance walker, but perhaps what's most amazing about it is that we've also had a glimpse into its behavior.

08:45:55 We've hypothesized, after eliminating pretty much everything else, that Homo naledi was deliberately disposing of its dead, which means it's got a mind that has the capacity that we previously thought was not only unique to humans, but perhaps identified humans — the concept, perhaps, of the recognition of self-mortality.

00:11:07 ALICE WINKLER: That bears repeating, repeating and elaborating. Lee Berger and his colleagues are quite certain that these creatures were intentionally disposing of their dead. Baruch Shemtov, who spoke to Dr. Berger for the Academy of Achievement in 2015, asked how he could be so sure.

00:11:28 LEE BERGER: We were faced with a dilemma. About day four, we realized that there was nothing in this chamber but hominids. All of us have degrees in archeology, forensic anthropology, and we kind of knew what it meant to see a truly monospecific assemblage. It's rare to the point of unique in the paleontological record. Well, except for one species, Homo sapiens. This wasn't Homo sapiens. We knew that very early on.

00:11:57 We knew it was primitive, and so we began trying to eliminate things. We could easily eliminate, eventually, that it wasn't a predator. There were no marks of that. There was no scavenging. We knew that it wasn't a mass death assemblage because they had come in one after the other. We could tell that from studies of how the bones had — were laid out, and also how they were weathering. We knew that they hadn't died in some collapse. We knew they weren't washed in there. We could see that from the sediments.

00:12:26 We went through everything, and we were eventually left with this one hypothesis, that this non-human species of animal was doing something that we previously thought only humans did, deliberately disposing of its dead.

00:12:44 BARUCH SHEMTOV: And why would that be so significant?

00:12:47 LEE BERGER: Well, up until September 10, when we announced that we have a species of non-human animal that deliberately disposes of its dead in a ritualized fashion — at least that's the best hypothesis — it was thought that that was not only unique to humans, but perhaps identified us. Now we have to rethink what it means to be a human.

00:13:12 ALICE WINKLER: Lee Berger emphasized several times during this interview that no one knows where this species, Homo naledi, fits into the human family tree. And more than that, he said, it’s probably the wrong question to be asking. If anything, Homo naledi and Berger’s previous discovery, sediba, seem to indicate that there is no one family tree. More likely, there are branches that split off, developed, and came back together at times.

00:13:42 That’s why Berger calls these two species human relatives rather than human ancestors. On the path to humankind, he says, there were lots of different experiments. I want to switch gears here and take you on Lee Berger’s personal path, the path that brought him to sediba and Homo naledi eventually, but that began in the mid-1960s on the farm where he grew up outside the tiny town of Sylvania, Georgia. It's far, far away in every way from where he now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

00:14:19 LEE BERGER: I was always collecting things. I would spend my time in the woods whenever I could. Some unfortunate animals ended up in terrariums or aquariums in my house, or I would be out in the plowed fields looking for arrowheads or Native American artifacts or rocks. I came from a sort of long line of these sorts of explorers, if you will. My grandfather was an oil wildcatter. I have deep history in sodbusters, the first pioneers going out, and all types of sort of people who were always never happy to be right where they were but always looking for something.

00:14:55 And I found a real thrill in seeing things other people missed, you know, seeing the anomaly, if you will.

00:15:04 ALICE WINKLER: His dad sold insurance. His mom was a math teacher, but all he wanted to do was stay outdoors. He was an Eagle Scout, head of the Georgia 4H Club. You get the picture.

00:15:17 LEE BERGER: I began to become interested in wildlife conservation and biology. I found out there was an endangered species in my region called the gopher tortoise, and that took me to national competitions, and it also introduced me to the first scientists I’d ever met, and they were hugely formative. And I ended up starting the first gopher tortoise preserve in the state of Georgia.

00:15:41 It's now the state reptile, and it was a big part of teaching me not just about passion when you find something, but about the process of what you do to study something or to actually make something happen. It also taught me a little bit about politics, which, you know, getting some other people to become interested in something and assist you in accomplishing something.

00:16:05 ALICE WINKLER: But Lee Berger decided he ought to study law. Why is not such a big mystery, he explained in this interview with journalist Gail Eichenthal. Anyone who’s ever had parents can figure it out. “When you’re young,” he said, “what other people want you to be is often the easiest way out.” Berger got into Vanderbilt University on a Navy ROTC scholarship, but after his first few pre-law courses, he says, he was ready to die.

00:16:36 But he had gotten a scholarship to do what he was doing and didn’t see an escape.

00:16:41 LEE BERGER: My transcript looked sort of like F, D, D, F in my core subjects of what I was supposed to be, and then A, A, A in everything I was taking as an elective. And I reached a critical point where it was literally one of those situations where I was going to fail out of college, or I had to do something radical in my life.

00:17:05 And I had one of those incredible moments when I met a person who didn’t realize how influential he would be in my life, in the young lieutenant who was my advisor in the Naval ROTC, because I went in on the verge of failing out. Now I was lucky enough at that time that we had the two-year process, so I'd gone a year-and-a-bit into it, so I wouldn’t have to go enlisted, but I was in trouble.

00:17:33 And I went to him, and I said, "Gosh, you know, it's not working, and I think I'm maybe going to drop out for a while, maybe enlist in the Navy, and find myself, because this isn't working." And this young lieutenant, who had my life in his hands, he could have told me — and it would have been in his interests, because they're recruiting officers in some ways, to say, "Absolutely." Or, you know — he leaned across the table, and he said, "What is this, when you look at it?" And he had my transcript, and he shoved it across, and, you know, I was like, "Failure?"

00:18:09 You know, that was — and he said, "No, look at it again. Don't look at the D’s and F’s. Look at that again." And I said, "I don't see it." And he said, "I see your passion there. I see what you love. You just don't realize it." He said, "You’re not enlisted material. You need to find your love." And he said, "I will let you out of here right now as long as you promise me to go do what you love."

00:18:38 And he signed my release papers. I put my stay at Vanderbilt in abeyance, and I walked out the door into a very interesting period, but where I then found that thing and never looked back.

00:18:55 ALICE WINKLER: It wasn’t a straight shot to paleoanthropology. His journey included a stint as a news cameraman and the dramatic rescue of a drowning woman, but eventually Berger did get back to school, this time at East Georgia College.

00:19:10 LEE BERGER: And there I met a geologist who just exploded the world of fossils that were all around me. I had no idea, in the place that I lived, this low country, of what was around me. I met this — these passionate English professors and mathematicians. My grades, of course, rocked, because it wasn't work anymore. I stayed there for a brief period, got my grades back, went down to Georgia Southern University because it was the only place I could afford.

00:19:38 You know, I was on my own on this one. I’d had my scholarship chance. And I walked into another place with — that was just full of these rare, passionate academics and scientists. I had, by that time, read a book that fundamentally changed my life, and it was Lucy, and I actually took this book from the library. I did eventually pay the fine and put it back, but I couldn’t put it down.

00:20:06 ALICE WINKLER: “Lucy,” discovered in 1974 by Don Johanson and Tom Gray, was the first skeleton found of an early hominid, which is to say an animal that walks upright on two legs. Until Lucy, the field of paleoanthropology was based mostly on scraps and conjecture, which the book Lee Berger was reading made clear.

00:20:30 LEE BERGER: And there was one line in there that struck me, when Don, who would eventually become a great friend and mentor of mine, said that these early hominid fossils are effectively the rarest sought-after objects on Earth, and there's something like a one-in-ten-million chance of finding one. And I had just before then been thinking of becoming a dinosaur paleontologist or something, and I — that line so intrigued me because the first thought that came into my mind was not, "Gee, who would want to go into a field of science where you have no chance of finding something?"

00:21:11 But, "There's a field that you can make a difference with even the smallest discovery," and I wanted to make a difference.

00:21:21 ALICE WINKLER: Not too much later, Lee Berger met his hero, Don Johanson. Johanson liked him and invited him to join in on a project in Tanzania. When the project didn’t come through, though, Johanson arranged for Lee Berger to join a different research expedition in Kenya with the other most-famous paleontologist of that era, Richard Leakey.

00:21:44 LEE BERGER: My first morning there, I couldn’t sleep. Here I was. You know, these are the fossil fields of Africa. I woke up early. All the rest of the students stayed asleep, and I walked in. I saw the light on in this small encampment in the middle — right on the edge of Lake Turkana, middle of Africa, and there I met a man, John Kimengich, one of Richard Leakey’s fossil hunters, and he chatted to me for a moment. He was having tea.

00:22:12 It was probably 4:30, and then when he said, "You know, you want to go look for fossils with me? I'm going out now." I said, "Of course." Over the next several hours, he taught me how to find these anomalies, how to see these things, and as we were walking back to the Land Rover, 11:00 in the morning — it gets too hot to work — a hundred meters from the Land Rover, I look down, and there was a piece of a femur, this leg bone, of an early hominid. I found my first hominid — one-in-ten-million chance — my first day. It was completely — I was hooked.

00:22:46 ALICE WINKLER: Fast forward not too many years, Lee Berger, now just in his early 30s, had rocketed to a position as chair of a very prestigious research unit at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

00:23:01 LEE BERGER: I'd taken over from a very powerful and famous paleoanthropologist named Phillip Vallentine Tobias, and I had made some discoveries. And when I first got to South Africa to do my Ph.D., I discovered two little hominid teeth, but those two teeth were the first new early hominid site discovered in Southern Africa in 48 years. They appeared in National Geographic, two teeth. That's how rare this stuff was at the time.

00:23:32 I had done other work looking at what killed the Taung Child. I had looked at body proportions, but I had not made major hominid discoveries because they are just that rare. And I had gotten into the type of ups and downs and wars — I'd had the most ferocious fights with colleagues, and I was always pushing boundary. I also took a stance in the late 1990s about open access to fossils.

00:24:03 You’ve got to remember — it's very important to remember — that I'm almost the first generation of scientists, people my age and just maybe a year older, that were never without a computer. It makes us think differently, and, in the late 1990s, there were some behavioral abnormalities within paleoanthropology that bothered me a lot. And I was in a very powerful position, a young man made director in seemingly one of the most powerful chairs in the science of paleoanthropology. And I had fossils that had been found by other people, albeit in the very distant past, under my control.

00:24:40 And in this science, those are resources, and I decided to open them up, let everyone look at them. It now is called “open access.” We didn’t have a name for it at that time, really, but I took a relatively public stance on that, that I was going to let people see these fossils. It was not the way it was done.

00:25:00 ALICE WINKLER: Keep in mind, the idea of an online database was still pretty novel at the time, so that's not what Lee Berger’s talking about here.

00:25:09 LEE BERGER: That was yet to be. No, I meant physically look at them. I meant — and it may sound strange to people, but let scientific colleagues see material, published or unpublished. And that was not the norm. The norm at that time was — and I'm not criticizing it, I'm just explaining how the science worked. You would gather a small team of people around you when you had important fossils, and you would study them over years and years and years and years, and then, at times, you would pronounce on the analyses that you had carefully conducted.

00:25:46 While that's not wrong in any way, shape, or form, it was different than the way my generation thinks about the value. We grew up in the age of where you have a Google or a Facebook or the Internet, where we didn't know what anything was worth until you put it out there and began to establish its worth as a community, as you tested the robusticity of it as you went along.

00:26:13 And so, I was looking at the fossils the same way, and I said, "I'm going to open the safe door." Well, it was probably a decade too early to say that, and it caused wars. It coincided with also a discovery of a very major fossil by a person older than me that worked for me. That caused tension and conflicts.

00:26:34 ALICE WINKLER: All in all, it was one of the lowest periods in his career. Berger says some of the academic infighting caused him to dissolve his own unit, which he’d spent six or seven years building. Eventually, he rebuilt it, but the problems persisted, and then technology shifted with the advent of 3D imaging and reliable large data.

00:26:58 LEE BERGER: Because my exploration efforts looking for fossils in various sites and stuff had not produced any really big hits, the push by things like the universities and colleagues was to move away from exploration. There was very much a real feel that we’d probably pretty much discovered every major fossil field in Africa, and, in fact, some scientists even wrote that down at the turn of the millennia.

00:27:27 ALICE WINKLER: It was becoming clear to Lee Berger that the future of paleoanthropology was going to be in the lab, looking at the fossils already discovered decades before with new tools. Berger began thinking about a career shift.

00:27:43 LEE BERGER: It was going to be very hard to continue to get the kind of resources to fund risk-taking exploration. People were clearly not believing that there were other sites out there. There were talks of not even allowing digging at new sites because they clearly had failed, and I'd almost been a demonstration of that over 17 years. It was at that moment that I became the last human being on Earth to discover Google Earth.

00:28:09 ALICE WINKLER: Berger had spent the previous three years using a handheld GPS and satellite maps he bought from NASA for thousands - sometimes tens of thousands - of dollars, to try and plot the coordinates of known fossil sites. It’s complicated and pretty technical, but he was looking for clues on the terrain that might help him discover where to search next. This technology was a big leap forward, he thought. Then, as he said, came Google Earth.

00:28:42 LEE BERGER: Well, you know, after looking at my house, like everyone does the first time they do it, I saw that little window over to the left that you could put GPS coordinates in. And I had some of the most expensively obtained GPS coordinates on the planet to put in that window, and I typed them in, and I saw what everyone sees, that amazing Google Earth phenomena of flying from the sky and popping right down onto the point that that coordinate is.

00:29:09 And my coordinate, the first one, which I'd put in because I knew it better than any place on Earth, landed on nothing. It landed hundreds and hundreds of meters away. Second point I put in, the same thing. Third — they were all useless. They were all wrong. I had wasted three years of my life. I had wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of research grant.

00:29:34 Did not take me long to Google why the U.S. government had put deliberate error into those GPSs in the late 1990s, for military purposes, and that, with my — the errors that were inherent in those handheld GPSs had created a compounding error. Well, that was like adding low to low on my life at that moment, and so I spent the rest of December and January moving those points physically on Google from where they landed to where I knew they should be, because I could see these sites.

00:30:10 It was one of the most important moments in the entire story of my scientific career because it was in correcting that error that I began to see patterns, that I began to see that they fell in linear structures, that I began to see the fossil sites clustered together. Caves might be in more random situations.

00:30:37 And I also began to see and learn what a site would look like, all the different varieties, and I began to think that if that’s a site, that looks like a site, and this looks like a site.

00:30:52 ALICE WINKLER: First thing he did was make a list of targets, gathered a team, and started out. Within the year, he’d found 40 new fossil sites in an area world-famous for having 20. Then one morning he went out with a student; his dog, Tao; and his nine-year-old son, Matthew, to look at a potential site where some miners, looking for lime 100 years ago, had blasted a few holes with dynamite. For some reason, though, the miners had left the site otherwise untouched.

00:31:26 LEE BERGER: Matthew shouts, "Dad, I found a fossil!" He was 15 meters off the site in high grass. I could see he was holding a small rock, and just for a moment I almost didn't go look because I knew what he would have found. He would have found an antelope fossil because for every one of these early hominins we find, these human ancestor pieces, we find about 250,000 pieces of antelopes. We just don't find these things.

00:31:55 My nine-year-old son and — encouraging fossil-hunting — I started walking towards him, and five meters away I knew that his and my life were going to change forever. Because he was holding a small rock — you have to visualize and crouch down, and there on the outside of it was an S-shaped bone. And that S-shaped bone was a hominin clavicle, and the reason I knew that is very few mammals, first, in Africa have hominin clavicles.

00:32:24 Bats have them because they fly. Moles have them because they dig, and primates have them. We're primates, and only amongst primates do humans and our ancestors have this very characteristic S-shape, and at that time I was probably one of the world's only experts on hominin clavicles. I did my Ph.D. on them. All six or seven pieces, never a complete one, had been found.

00:32:49 I did my thesis on the clavicle, the proximal humerus, and the scapula, and one of the reasons I did is there were no complete bones in the entire record of those, and it was about the only thing left to study, and it was all scraps. And I was looking at one.

00:33:04 ALICE WINKLER: Berger turned over the rock, and on the other side was a jaw and a tooth. It turned out he and nine-year-old Matthew had found the partial skeleton of a child, a tween actually. Up until that day, there were only something like seven partial early hominid skeletons ever found, and two of those were discovered by Berger’s role models and mentors, Don Johanson and Richard Leakey. Overnight, Lee Berger had joined their ultra-elite club.

00:33:39 And all three, I can't help mentioning here, are members of the Academy of Achievement. But anyway, when Berger went back to the fossil site to hunt for the rest of his skeleton, he discovered another, and another, and another — six skeletons in all, belonging to that species he named Australopithecus sediba. At the time he talked to the Academy of Achievement about sediba, four years later, he was still in the glow of it.

00:34:10 After all, it was the discovery of a lifetime, as he told journalist Gail Eichenthal.

00:34:16 LEE BERGER: That started this adventure I’ve been on. It has — the site of Malapa, which I would eventually call it, which means “my home,” has turned into perhaps the richest early hominid site ever discovered in the history of this planet.

00:34:29 ALICE WINKLER: But remember, this conversation about sediba with the Academy of Achievement took place in 2012. The very next year, lightning struck again when Lee Berger discovered another new species, Homo naledi, and a way bigger collection of skeletons deep inside a cave, intentionally buried, it seems. Just weeks after news of that discovery went very, very viral, Lee Berger spoke with the Academy for the second time.

00:35:03 LEE BERGER: Homo naledi has done something that I thought would never happen to me as a paleoanthropologist. I went into a field to study and interpret bones. Suddenly, not only are there bones, but you've got a discovery that's giving you insight into behavior in a way that I never anticipated. The idea that we're getting a window into another species' mind from this chamber — that's amazing, you know?

00:35:33 That's something that I think the whole world is going to have to think about. You know, you've got something here, a discovery that's making us question our own humanity. I guess I don’t know how I feel about that. I haven't had enough time to digest the effect of that in something that I wasn't really prepared for. I'd spent my life as a biologist, a paleontologist, and now I have to also think like a philosopher. That's kind of neat though.

00:36:09 ALICE WINKLER: Lee Berger doesn’t know what he’s looking for next. At any moment, he says, his phone could ring and one of his explorers could be on the other end saying, "Hey, you’ve got to see this," and that, Berger says, is the thrill of it. This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. If you want to learn more about Lee Berger’s life and work, go to, and because you are a particularly curious form of hominid, make sure to follow us on Twitter to find out about upcoming episodes. Our handle is @WhatItTakesNow. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:36:49 And thanks, as always, to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes.

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.