Books, Booze + Brains: Almost Human by Lee Berger

This first-person narrative about an archaeological discovery is rewriting the story of human evolution. A story of defiance and determination by a controversial scientist, this is Lee Berger’s own take on finding Homo naledi, an all-new species on the human family tree and one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century.
In 2013, Berger, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, caught wind of a cache of bones in a hard-to-reach underground cave in South Africa. He put out a call around the world for petite collaborators–men and women small and adventurous enough to be able to squeeze through 8-inch tunnels to reach a sunless cave 40 feet underground. With this team of -underground astronauts, – Berger made the discovery of a lifetime: hundreds of prehistoric bones, including entire skeletons of at least 15 individuals, all perhaps two million years old. Their features combined those of known prehominids like Lucy, the famous Australopithecus, with those more human than anything ever before seen in prehistoric remains. Berger’s team had discovered an all new species, and they called it Homo naledi.
The cave quickly proved to be the richest primitive hominid site ever discovered, full of implications that shake the very foundation of how we define what makes us human. Did this species come before, during, or after the emergence of Homo sapiens on our evolutionary tree? How did the cave come to contain nothing but the remains of these individuals? Did they bury their dead? If so, they must have had a level of self-knowledge, including an awareness of death. And yet those are the very characteristics used to define what makes us human. Did an equally advanced species inhabit Earth with us, or before us? Berger does not hesitate to address all these questions.
Berger is a charming and controversial figure, and some colleagues question his interpretation of this and other finds. But in these pages, this charismatic and visionary paleontologist counters their arguments and tells his personal story: a rich and readable narrative about science, exploration, and what it means to be human.

One of my favorite things about being back in Indy is the sheer number of geeky activities. This is NERD PARADISE. There are so many beer tastings that we can’t keep up, and every weekend there’s at least one thing we want to do that we may or may not be able to make it to.

Upon realizing I was back in town, a friend sent over info on a new book club downtown called Books, Booze, & Brains, hosted by Indiana Humanities Quantum Leap Program. Sciency people reading sciency books while drinking sciency cocktails (the club takes place at Broken Beaker Distillery), while listening to scientists explain sciency things! How much more nerdy can you get?

September’s book was Almost Human by Lee Berger & John Hawks–the story of the Homo Naledi discovery, among others. While I’m completely uneducated in paleoanthropology, what better way to learn than to have a book explained by someone who knows what they are talking about!

When I signed up, I thought that the “scientist” would be just a local professor who studied paleoanthropology. The info sheet had named him as Dr. Andrew S Deane, Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at IU School of Medicine. I was looking forward to it, regardless, but he actually WORKED ON THE NALEDI PROJECT! In fact, Dr. Deane was the hand guy–so he studied the very hand that is on the cover of the book. How cool is that? We (and by we, I mean the much smarter people in the room than myself) were able to ask questions about the dig, theories about Naledi and how the bones got into the cave, etc, and receive educated answers in return. It was really neat. Way more involved than I had expected. This is definitely an event I will be returning to.

As for the book, I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It does expect you to know SOME about paleoanthropology, so Google definitely got used quite a bit. But there’s so much to the study of “pre-humans” that I had no idea even existed. I had heard of Lucy and neanderthals, but beyond that? Clueless. How they go about finding, digging, and researching these species is fascinating.

I also think it’s really awesome that Berger made such a point to share his work with the community. In an age where science is being doubted, and pushed down by politicians and government, any effort to get this information into people’s hands is just incredible–especially if the field normally hoards the information. Please, more of that.

I have so many notes from the other night, and I absolutely cannot wait until the next one. We are reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, who is an author I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. Can’t wait! If you’re in Indy, definitely think about joining in on this event!


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