So this morning I got a personal tour through the most incredible find in paleoanthropological discovery of my lifetime, quite possibly ever. Dr. Lee Berger himself walked me and two friends through the museum display of a hominid skeleton that might belong to one of my own direct relatives. The visit left my mind reeling, as it often does, between the logical smoothness of hard science, which I find very soothing, and the insane improbability of Berger’s find, which once again makes me suspect there are forces at work to which most of science, so far, remains blind.
Let me explain.
One day, a family group of human-like creatures with heads a lot like ours, legs a lot like ours, social behaviors a lot like ours, and arms a lot like an orangutan’s, were hanging out together in southern Africa when something went dramatically wrong. It looks as though they fell into a “death trap,” perhaps when an underground cave collapsed under their feet. They all died within hours of each other, along with a saber-toothed cat, a horse, wild dog, hyena and other animals. It is believed they were playing dodge ball at the time.
I made that last sentence up. So far, scientists have not been able to determine whether they were playing dodge ball or doing the Macarena. But this next part is true:
Right after the group died, an upwelling of unusual water—water so ancient it contained no oxygen and therefore no bacteria or insect life—swept all the bodies into a pocket of the cave. Within hours, a blend of this sterile water and limestone filled the cave and set like cement. This created near-perfect natural preservation, which has only recently been simulated by modern-day plastic surgeons working in Beverly Hills.
During the next 1.9 million years, the Skeleton Family was pushed surface-ward as the earth above them slowly eroded. A few decades ago, a tiny bit of one skeleton finally broke the surface. In another few years, it would have been destroyed by natural forces as it lay exposed to weather, animals, and so on. But, in the incredibly tiny window when the bone was lying on the surface, but still undisturbed, a 9-year-old boy named Matt Berger noticed it while walking with his father.
“From 5 meters away,” Lee Berger told me, about 18 months after that fateful walk, “I knew it was a clavicle.”
Well, of course he did.
You see, Dr. Berger had written a Ph.D. dissertation on hominid clavicles. He has possibly thought more about clavicles than anyone else on earth who was not eating seriously party-oriented mushrooms.
The clavicle turned out to belong to a Skeleton Family boy who was about Matt’s age when he died. His bones, and the bones of his relatives, are still being unearthed. To give you some perspective: The skeleton fragments that make up our biological record of hominid evolution comprise a bit of skull here, a tooth there, a knuckle somewhere else. No skeletons this complete have been found before. No two individual ancient hominids have ever been found together. No examples of both sexes of the same hominid have been found together. No directly related individuals have ever been found…I could go on and on, but suffice it to say this find is mind-bogglingly rich. Organic things just don’t last 2 million years, except in the bizarre circumstances that preserved the Skeleton Family.
In this case, scientists are examining the tartar on the Skeleton Family’s teeth to see what they ate for their last meal. Seriously. I saw the teeth this morning with my own beady eyes, and they look just like mine feel after eating a lollipop. When they finish digging up the kid’s mother, who died next to him, they’ll probably figure out that she was just about to make him go brush properly when the cave-in occurred.
There’s a famous example of probability you’ll hear in basic statistics classes: If you let a chimpanzee bang on a keyboard at random forever, he’ll eventually—by pure chance—type up the complete works of Shakespeare. Obviously, this will take a long time, longer even than your average cocktail party, which, from my perspective, is virtually infinite. But the chimp’s odds of duplicating Shakespeare don’t seem all that different from the odds of a clavicle specialist’s young son happening upon another young boy’s clavicle during the brief period when the bone went visible after being fossilized in a freak, high-preservation accident almost 2 million years ago.
“Can I ask you a goony-fan question?” I asked Dr. Berger as we stood ogling the skeleton, complete with its tooth-tartar. “When you realized what you’d found, how did it feel?”
“I haven’t slept for eighteen months,” he said.
I may not sleep that well myself tonight. I’m shocked awake all over again every time some incredible reality nudges me toward dropping my Newtonian model of the world, where things happen randomly, and the emerging post-Newtonian worldview in which time is not linear, matter is only a form of energy, and things are connected in ways we’ve only begun to fathom.
I mean really—five years of studying clavicles? Who does that?
So if you’re reading this at a time when the odds against you feel large and your chance of success tiny, pay attention. Go for a lot of walks. Notice what you feel compelled to learn. Follow your hunches. Hold in your mind’s hands, see with your mind’s eyes, hear with your mind’s ears, the unbelievable good fortune you hope will happen to you.
Then work your hind end off, travel to wherever the odds are good, and never stop searching. Oh, and always travel with a child, or at least a child’s-eye view. You never know where a 9-year-old is going to find a friend.