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'Skull in the Rock' archaeologist coming to WNED

Courtesy photo

Here’s an image fit for Halloween: an ancient skull looking out from a jagged rock. That’s exactly what the nine-year old son of an archeologist stumbled over four years ago in South Africa.

Upon closer examination, this rock contained dozens of fossils of a previously-unknown species of ape-like creature – believed to be a direct ancestor of modern humans.  The discovery is the subject of a new book whose authors will visit WNED studios this weekend for an educational event.

The skull in rock continues to shine new and intriguing light on our evolution as humans.

By earth standards, two million years ago is not a long time. But to humans  – it’s a ways back. In fact, there were no humans back then. It’s a time devoid of many clues for scientists trying to piece together our evolution. That is, until…

“A big rock caught my eye,” says Mathew Berger,  who was nine years old and assisting his archeologist father, Lee Berger in an area of South Africa known as the Cradle of Mankind when he saw said rock.

And [Matthew] yelled out, ‘Dad, I’ve found a fossil,’” says Marc Aronson, an author and professor at Rutgers.

Young Mathew had found his share of antelope bones and old rocks before, but this one was different.

“So I called my dad [Lee Berger] over and when we was about five meters away, he started swearing,” says Matthew.

“[Lee] got about 15 feet away and literally his world went black and white. Literally, he had the sensation of the color draining out of the world,” says Aronson.

Aronson is the author of the new book “Skull in the Rock” about the father-son find, which changed both their lives and provided researchers with one of the most intact skeletons of our early relatives.

“So on the way home, I asked him in the car, I asked, ‘Aren’t you happy I found this?’ says Matthew. [Lee responded] Yes, yes, I really was!’ So then I asked him, ‘Why were you swearing so much?’ And then he said, ‘It’s because we were happy.’”

As archeologist Lee Berger showed 60 Minutes a few years ago, the fossils offer a remarkable window back in time.

“There’s a face from 1.9 million years ago….older than Moses!”

“[The fossils] were so well preserved that the tartar on the teeth was preserved,” says Aronson. “And within the tartar are actual plant fragments. So for the first time ever we can say what a human ancestor two million years ago ate. We know what dinner was.”

Many archeologists spend decades looking for fossils and come up with nothing. But nine-year old Matthew’s curiosity is credited with unearthing one of the most significant archeological finds of all time, says Aronson.

“When you really know something, like your backyard, you notice what’s different. You notice the anomaly. You notice what doesn’t fit and that begins you on a journey,” he says.

The story offers valuable lessons for children, says Aronson, who thinks it could help create a generation of young students who are interested in the sciences, scientific reasoning and learning more about the world around them.

“We are giving young people what is known so far, what is said by this scientist. We also have to give young people the capacity to know that others disagree. That there are counter views. That this may change,” he says.

With U.S. students lagging behind peers around the world in math and science, Aronson says this tale can help teachers successful teach students to embrace their imaginations, curiosity and sense of discovery – lessons that archeologist Lee Berger imparted to his son.

“He’s saying, ‘If my son and I found this and could have missed it – [then] what’s lying in wait for us? What haven’t we seen? What’s around the next bend? What’s around the bend where you live?”

This Saturday, Marc Aronson and Archeologist Lee Berger will hand at WNED’s downtown studios for an educational event for children and adults.  It’s free and open to the public. Please visit wned.org to register and find out more information. That’s at 140 Lower Terrace in Buffalo from 10AM to 12 Noon this Saturday, November 3rd from 10 AM to Noon. Doors Open at 9:30AM. Parking is free.