2 Million-Year-Old Woman
Three hominids found in a cave in South Africa—the first by a paleoanthropologist’s 9-year-old son—will provide remarkable clues about where we came from, scientists tell 60 Minutes’ Bob Simon.
Some stories just never stop breaking—even stories concerning things that happened 2 million years ago. Last Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a remarkable story about the discovery of two hominid fossils in South Africa. They were in a place called The Cradle of Humankind, just 50 minutes from Johannesburg. The first fossil, found by the son of American paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, contained the remains of a 9-year-old boy, who is being called Sediba. The second, lying right next to him, was a 30-year-old woman. Scientists from around the world hailed it as the most important find since that famous lady “Lucy” surfaced in 1974: more than enough to keep anthropologists busy analyzing and arguing for decades. But then, just two days later, it was reported that the remains of an infant had been found in the same place, less than a meter from the woman and the boy. The man who made the discovery, Dr. Brian Kuhn from Johannesburg’s Wits University, was quoted as saying the infant is the child of the woman because they were found in such close proximity. Kuhn reportedly believes the infant was between 12 and 18 months old when it died. All three were found in a cave, and Berger believes they were probably searching for water when they fell into the cave and died, all at the same time.
There was no sugar in his diet. He ate raw meat. (He couldn’t light a fire for a few more hundred thousand years.) He ate vegetables. He might even have eaten his relatives.
Never before have hominids of that age been found in such good condition. Scientists are convinced they belong to a previously undiscovered species and that they will provide new clues about where we came from. Their long legs indicate that they could walk upright. Their long arms and strong hands suggest that they also felt at home in trees and would climb them when threatened by predators, such as saber-toothed cats. Their brains are a lot smaller than ours, meaning that a lot of evolution still had to happen before the invention of the iPad. But Berger believes it’s possible they could use tools of some sort, probably made of stone. He also firmly believes that they are our ancestors, lying on the same branch of our family tree. He places them about halfway between the ape and us. That’s why he names them “Australopithecus Sediba,” which translates as “southern ape, source,” indicating their relation to apes and to the human genus.
The ideas are remarkable to someone who hasn’t thought about evolution for a while. But what’s even more remarkable is the skull. Frankly, if I had stumbled across it in a dark cave somewhere, I wouldn’t have doubted that it belonged to one of us, possibly to someone who had crossed Tony Soprano. What’s even more stunning are the teeth, almost a full set of them, whiter than mine and just a bit larger. If they had dentists back then, they would have gone broke because he doesn’t have a single cavity. That’s because there was no sugar in his diet. He ate raw meat. (He couldn’t light a fire for a few more hundred thousand years.) He ate vegetables. He might even have eaten his relatives. But nothing from the candy store. Whenever a dentist looks at my teeth, he sees a yacht. Were he to peer at Sediba’s, he would tell him to come back for another checkup in a million years or so. Berger says they will find out exactly what Sediba ate by analyzing the skin of his teeth. That will take a while.
Now if you are as curious as I was about why these men of science refer to their findings as “fossils” instead of “skeletons” or “bones,” here’s what I learned. Over the millennia, the bones were replaced by calcium carbonate—lime and other minerals—to form a cast; perfect down to the tiniest detail, but not bones anymore: rock, cleverly disguised by nature as bone. You can’t tell the difference by looking at it; only by holding it. It’s heavy. This is true for every part of the creature, except for its teeth. The teeth, since they are fossils (i.e., minerals) to begin with, are the originals; the very same teeth with which Sediba chomped his way through his short life.
Sediba’s skull was found by Lee Berger. But that was only after Sediba’s clavicle had been found protruding from a rock by Berger’s 9-year-old son, Matthew. And the clavicle alone, Berger says, would have electrified the world of paleoanthropology. Most of his colleagues, Berger says, go through life without unearthing anything of that significance. Finding not only the clavicle but the skull and the rest of Sediba, not to mention the woman—well, Berger, who is a very articulate man, cannot describe the experience.
So a 9-year-old boy came across another 9-year-old boy who lived almost 2 million years earlier. As a colleague of mine said while witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall: “I smell a story.”
Bob Simon is a correspondent for 60 Minutes , where he has been contributing regularly since 1996. His work has appeared on nearly every CBS News broadcast and has won 23 Emmys. He is also the recipient of a Peabody Award and four Overseas Press Club Awards.