Armchair Archeology

Combining traditional archaeological methods with the power of technology

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Face to face with a new ancestor

For almost two million years, a secret lay in a nondescript corner of what’s come to be known as the Cradle of Humankind. All it took to uncover it was a paleoanthropologist, his 9-year-old son, a single wayward dog and the knowledge-sharing capabilities of Google Earth.

Professor Lee Berger of Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg started digging around in Google Earth in late 2007. Google Earth, he felt, offered an ideal platform for exchanging information with other scientists, particularly as a way to plot the caves and fossil deposits that had been identified since 1935 when archaeological investigations in the the Cradle of Humankind began.

By learning to analyze satellite imagery to identify cave sites in the dun-colored landscape, Dr. Berger began locating new fossil deposits. When he embarked on his project, there were approximately 130 known cave sites in the area and around 20 fossil deposits. With the help of Google Earth’s navigation facility and high-resolution imagery, he went on to find almost 600 previously unidentified caves and fossil sites in one of the most explored areas in Africa.

With his son and dog in tow, Dr. Berger headed to one of the spots he’d identified online to explore in person in August 2008. When the dog ran off into high grass, the professor’s son took off in pursuit – and stumbled onto one of the most significant palaeoanthropological discoveries of recent times.

The cranium of the juvenile skeleton of Au. Sediba. (Photo by Brett Eloff, courtesy of Wits University)

With the help of satellite imagery, Professor Lee Berger uncovered almost 500 previously unidentified fossil sites in the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa and made the discovery of a lifetime - a new ancestor.

What Dr. Berger’s son had chanced upon might look like a rock to the casual observer, but closer inspection revealed two remarkably well-preserved partial hominid skeletons dating back between 1.977 and 1.98 million years. The fossils represented a new species, Australopithecus sediba, an upright walker that is thought to be a transitional species between Australopithecus africanus and Homo habilis. It could even be a direct ancestor of Homo erectus. Its introduction into the fossil record sheds vital light on our earliest ancestry in Africa.

While the discovery poses a major milestone in the understanding of human evolution, it also represents a great example of how Google Earth enables both amateurs and distinguished scientists to explore and learn about their world. These tools opens up places both foreign and familiar to exploration at the click of a mouse, allowing for new perspectives on geography, topology, anthropology, development, architecture and the environment.

Learn more about how Dr. Berger utilized Google Earth in his discovery of a new hominid ancestor in South Africa.