“Dad, I’ve found a fossil.”
Nine-year-old Matthew Berger was fossil hunting with his dad when he stumbled and spied a brown rock with a thin yellow bone stuck in it. Matthew was lucky: His father is Professor Lee Berger, a scientist who has devoted his life to finding the remains of our ancient ancestors. They had often gone exploring together in the brown limestone hills and scraggly trees just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. So many important fossils have been found in this area that it is called the Cradle of Humankind and is protected by the government and listed as a World Heritage Site.
Though only half an hour from one of the largest cities in Africa, the Cradle belongs to animals—visitors are watched by troops of baboons, dodged by scampering warthogs, measured by soaring eagles. The Bergers always bring their Rhodesian ridgebacks with them in their customized Jeep—since leopards and other predators prowl nearby, and the dogs smell and sense them in time to give warning. On this pleasant August morning in 2008, Matthew called out to his dad—and opened a door two million years
back in time.
Some day, Matthew’s words may be famous, the way we honor “What hath God wrought?” the first telegraph message sent in 1844, or “Mr. Watson, come here” the first telephone call 32 years later. What he found was that important. But that is not what his dad first thought. Every other time they had gone out together, Matthew found the remains of ancient antelopes—fossils that are quite common in the area. As Dr. Berger came closer, Matthew could tell that his dad assumed it was just another old antelope and was trying to be nice by pretending to be interested. That is exactly what Dr. Berger was thinking until he was about fifteen feet (4.6 m) from his son, and could focus.
Right then, just at that precise moment, he froze. His world went black and white. Time stopped. Matthew was holding a gift from the past so precious almost nothing like it had ever been found. And the one person in the world who knew that for sure was Dr. Lee Berger. For the fossil was a clavicle, the thin connecting bone across the shoulder that humans and our ancestors share—and that athletes in contact sports sometimes break. The bone is so fragile, not one of the famous skeletons of prehumans still has a complete one. Yet when he was a graduate student, Dr. Berger had written his Ph.D. thesis on just that bone and three others that would become important in this story, the bones that make up the upper arm.
Because Matthew had trained his eyes, he recognized a fossil. Because his father had studied that part of the body, he realized the treasure in his son’s hands. For Dr. Berger, it would have been enough to find that one special bone. But the clavicle was just the beginning. It was the rabbit hole beckoning Alice, the wardrobe flung open to Narnia, the first clue to what is becoming an entirely new way of understanding human evolution.
Excerpted from The Skull in the Rock by Lee Berger and Marc Aronson. Copyright © 2012 by Lee Berger and Marc Aronson. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic Children's Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.