Ep #38 Transcript | Lee Berger: Human Evolution, Homo Naledi, Ancient Drug Use, Ritual Burials
Full episode transcript below. Beware of typos!
Dr. Lee Berger, thank you for joining me.
Lee Berger 4:18
And thank you for having me on.
Nick Jikomes 4:20
Where are you calling in from today? I know that you're smart.
Lee Berger 4:23
I'm in Johannesburg, South Africa. You're seeing the bedfordview South Africa just outside of central Johannesburg behind you. I'm on my rooftop right now
Nick Jikomes 4:32
doing the standard. Now is it? Is it possible that some interesting wildlife will walk by in the background?
Lee Berger 4:38
It's pretty unlikely other than the two legged kind or my pets.
Nick Jikomes 4:45
So can you tell
Lee Berger 4:46
me what came out? I literally just came out of the book. Not not an hour and a half ago, I was in the middle of the cradle of humankind. Some draft came by working on new small animal research unit every unit so it's not far away, but 35 minutes from us, we're in pristine African village.
Nick Jikomes 5:07
Can you tell everyone what you do for a living and what your background is?
Lee Berger 5:12
I'm a paleoanthropologist. I'd like to actually say I'm a scientist to studies the exploration of the deep human journey. Because our field is such a multidisciplinary, one, looking at almost every aspect of how we came to be. I'm also an explorer. I'm technically an explorer at large for National Geographic. I'm a research professor, though by day at the University of it voters from hearing your history.
Nick Jikomes 5:41
How did you end up in South Africa.
Lee Berger 5:45
So that's a that's a probably longer story than a podcast of this deserves. But I grew up in rural Georgia, born in Kansas, but my parents moved to Georgia at fairly early stage where I had some sort of deep historical roots. always interested in the outdoors. I grew up in a very tiny town called Sylvania, Georgia, actually, I were 13 miles out of a very tiny town, called Sylvania. always interested in geology, archaeology, I come from a sort of long line of frustrated geologists who never got to do what they wanted to do. My father was in insurance and real estate, my grandfather was an oil, wildcat, Texas and those areas. So I had this love for that. But growing up in sort of rural areas, and being kind of a bright kid out of a small town, you kind of had doctor, lawyer, engineer, maybe politician as your possibilities for what you could do. And it was only once I got college on a Naval ROTC scholarship, and realized there were other things that you could actually pursue, I took electives. I was supposed to be a lawyer, went into college at Vanderbilt University in pre law, but then took electives in geology, and anthropology, and suddenly realized there was this world out there. I then later read a book called Lucy. And I was gonna be a dinosaur paleontologists. But then I read this book, and there was a sort of section of it that talked about the scarcity of these fossils of HTML. And it was in that idea of that there was this, you know, millions to one chance, you might actually find one of these ancient human relatives, you gotta remember at that time, we're talking about now the sort of middle late 80s, there were actually probably more paleoanthropologists, or people looking for these things. And there were fossils than we actually discovered at that time. And I was intrigued by that. Because in my mind, there was this idea that if you've made one tiny discovery, you could alter the way we perceive human origins. And that drew me into this field. And then that drew me to Africa and I ended up eventually the Harvard University could be for a field school, met Richard Leakey said, you know, I just I won't find fossils. He said, not up here. You're not quite literally, it was there wasn't space in East Africa. This was sort of the heyday is hard, fighting paleoanthropology late 1980s. And he said, but if you you know, my recommendation would be go to South Africa. Now, that was a tricky thing. In 1989. For a young person, we were still looking at a South Africa that was under apartheid. But when rumors, Mandela was going to be released, well that I'd also met Don Johansen personally, and he gave me the same advice. Go to South Africa, because there wasn't going to be room for a young American kid in East Africa. You know, finding fossils is, which is what I want to do. And so I found Philip Tobias, one of the great anatomical paleoanthropologists of their generation, he accepted me as his, quote unquote, last PhD student and down and I came here in 1990, the least Mandela, change plays, sort of like living to one of the greatest Oracle revolutions, and I started looking for sites and within a year, I found a site called Gladys Vale and found 200. And that was it. That was my life was changed, if you will.
Nick Jikomes 9:44
So before we we get into some of that stuff you mentioned Lucy, can you give us an abridged story of what Lucy was when when was that discovery made and where in human evolution is that story?
Lee Berger 9:58
Well, I can answer the question. And nowadays can answer the ladder. It was founded in the early mid 70s. At the time, there really never been a partial skeleton discovered that but cranial dental remains and those cranial remains bound in head are Ethiopia. And add, dated at that time, around three to 3.2 million years. It was transformational infield because we suddenly had something with some head parts with some body parts that may sound astounding to people. But in early hominid evolution, at that time, that was particularly rare, as I said, you know, literally a few 100 fossils had been discovered. In the 70s, and 80s. And early human evolution, it was also a time where we as a field, sort of, were still operating, with all due respect is the sort of Victorian science. You know, we were looking for the ancestor of humankind, we had a view that there was this sort of lineal descent, even though, even in those sort of early ish days of modern paleontology people began to talk about, you know, trees, and then would later talk about bushes. The idea was still the idea of an origin story. You know, the fossils we found we could cleanly put in and the older fossil you found the closer you were to our origin. And so Lucy became iconic as the poster girl for human evolution and, and the earliest humans and and, and all the books and all the hype that went around us. And so for a young, impressionable student like me at that particular time in middle late 80s, she was the iconic boss. And the idea that we had a, a way of, of building a literal puzzle of human origins, I've of course, come to come to change my mind, but involved in discoveries that changed the world's mind about how we would actually view individual fossils in that way at that time.
Nick Jikomes 12:21
How, how old is that fossil? Do we know about how
Lee Berger 12:24
old three to 3.2 million years belongs to the species, Australopithecus afarensis, or, or so we think that's another deep complex problem, as we've come to realize that multiple species existed at one time. I remember, back in the middle 1990s, I was co chair of a major conference held here in South Africa, where one of the leading paleoanthropologists that time stood up and said only one species of hominid lived at any one time in the past. And it's hard to imagine that wasn't that long. 2030 years ago, not even 30 years ago, yet, that was the dominant opinion and how the world's changed.
Nick Jikomes 13:07
Yeah, so I mean, we obviously look around the world today, and we see ourselves we see humans were the only species of humans walking around today, a lot of people are probably have at least heard of Neanderthals. So at one point, there were these two types of humans which could interbreed, walking around different parts of the world. Would you say that for most of the history of our species, it was the case that we that we know today that it was the case that there were multiple, potentially many species of humans around the globe.
Lee Berger 13:38
I think that, you know, the, I don't even have to say that, I think that it's a fact that today's an exception, the fact we sit here alone as a species. That is both unusual for large mammals. Most mammals share multiple species within not only the general but closely related species. It's an utter exception that, that that in time in the past it not only have there been, you know, you mentioned Anders halls where people kind of think there were two. But in fact, you had other hominids, fairly contemporaneous with that the floor is hobbits. Were there. And I suspect that within the next decade, two decades, two, three decades, we're going to see that, that that a hyper diversity in species was the common situation within our our group's evolution that in the hominids. Now, that, of course, brings up the sort of unspoken question, you know, are they really species if they're there, because what we're finding with DNA, as we look at it, more and more ancient genome is that that, that we're all off into regressing with these species. And so, you know, back when I was young people said, Oh, we're, you know, species defining whether you would make with it, and the mate recognition, recognition theories. And that's that's, I think, as we become more sophisticated, both with the understanding of variation in morphology, and also in DNA, that was very simplistic idea, we mate with other species and produce viable offspring, many animals do. And so we're at a world now where the, the definition of species is a more complex thing.
Nick Jikomes 15:43
So you mentioned when you were describing Lucy Australopithecus, so what is an Australopithecine? As opposed to a human?
Lee Berger 15:53
That's not as easy an answer again, I, you know, you keep asking questions that don't have simple answers. And, you know, I have sat in museums with fossils, we've discovered debating this with some of the greatest minds and paleoanthropology of his home of his Australopithecus is it. And often, you know, that's a moving target. So idea that we're sorting out, because you don't remember the way these genera which is what you're talking about Australopithecine, it's a generic level, as opposed to species which is like animism, Halfords, a sativa, or Homo naledi, on the same. Those are, those are terms that don't have great definitions. And so we struggle with them. And we attempt to create definitions. So my colleagues and I are naming in placing at least two species in new genera into existing generally use the grade level that is their adaptive.
Nick Jikomes 16:55
So when we're talking about something like Lucy, or an Australopithecine, we're typically talking about a primate cousin of ours that lived in the millions of years ago that
Lee Berger 17:06
No, no, sometimes, you know, we don't know. Often, you know, most most scientists, they would tell you that the genius homie, or genius, has been alone for the last billion or so years. I suspect that that's a naive assumption, you know, but you're speaking someone who's discovered sort of a holy kind of different thing that existed out of time in place, in the form of home and the letter just a couple of 100,000 years ago, I think that we've yet to get an understanding of, of how these different genera survived and adapted. It's a complex story.
Nick Jikomes 17:42
So where in in the story of human evolution did something like bipedalism evolve? Do we know around about when that was?
Lee Berger 17:50
Yeah, yeah, bipedalism goes back at least four and a half to 5 million years, when you get to something like already. pretty pathetic is ramadas, if you will, a species that was found in Ethiopia in the middle outwash. The dates to four and a half to five and a half million years potentially, there's a blog question is that a biped? You know, people like me would look at the anatomy say no, it's not. But it's not a terrestrial habitual biped items, the guitar gets included in the hominid because discovers and there's a sort of ideology within our field that says that, you know, anything that's found in that time period, that isn't a a quadric pit, eating paper, a knuckle walking eight is got to be a hominid, but which is generally our hominin. Generally, by be late, I look at the anatomy and say, No, I think it's an ape. I wish the discoverers had called it as opposed to call it an hominin. Because I think it muddies the waters when you have something that has a prehensile foot, which I think is critical for not being about it. And and these hyper elongate arms, hands that have elongation that are clearly adapted to climate climbing, but others have have a different opinion when it comes to a creature like that. I think it'd be more useful if we could actually unabashedly look at that and say that's not but but it was discovered at a time when people were talking about the idea of only one species of hominids at any one time. Sort of very ladder like or linear. Look that is the middle 1990s As recent zegt. I think that I think the whole hominid record of that period or the whole hominoid record deserves
Nick Jikomes 19:50
how do you actually tell or at least gas take your best guess at whether or not a given fossil would have been capable of walking upright?
Lee Berger 20:00
That's a great question because you have to have enough. And that's a very sensitive point amongst many of my colleagues, you know, I've been very fortunate and in being involved with discoveries, which have lots of bosses and skeletons, and we can look at the whole thing. That I think in being a discover of those kinds of things, it gives you a different perspective. Because you suddenly realize you need a lot of something, and certainly a lot of something to actually decide whether it is actually a buy Pilon. Some people say, Well, we have a lot of r&d, but we don't have a lot of very good stuff about, you know, the, the pelvis, for example, I think, by the original team, as Dr. Describing it had to be reconstructed 14 times before they got it right. And, you know, the Senate is the cynical scientist Miko, how do you know you got it? Right? Wouldn't the first iteration be better than the 40? Then so it's, it's a, you know, but we're looking for key anatomical characters, you know, expansion of the pelvis. The knee adapted the critical sort of lower limb bones adapted to walking only on two legs, while terrestrial and foot adaptations, adaptations of the spine. And then And then, of course, also add, combined with that adaptations, the arms, but, you know, any one of them was is not, you know, I think we found as we find these different, more complete specimens, and we click I remember, there is a historical, there's sort of a historical legacy of this, you have to be sympathetic that those were found at a time where we didn't have that many fossils, you need quite a lot and quite many of those areas to tell if something is actually using its whole body to form bipedalism. You know, even as I say this, I'm probably probably causing, you know, both nausea and heart attacks among senior members of our field who were defining hominids on dentition. Because that was the most common thing found that was kind of the tradition, you looked at things that weren't ape like dentitions. And you said it's hominid. It's a biped. You know, I unfortunately, I think the fossil record discoveries of particular last 12 to 15 years have said can't do there.
Nick Jikomes 22:26
Do we feel like do anthropologists feel like we have a reasonably good guess as to why bipedalism evolved in the first place?
Lee Berger 22:37
Eric, smart anthropologists would say no.
Nick Jikomes 22:42
Interesting. That's the short answer. So what's, what's the long answer?
Lee Berger 22:49
The long answer is a whole lot of different reasons. I mean, it is ranged through the history of our field from the idea of provisioning, for sex, to carrying food to toolmaking, to standing up to look over long grass, to more efficient ways. Because bipedal isn't very efficiently moving, it's actually surprising that it's so unique within the mammalian sort of history of evolution, but it's actually a very efficient way of walking long distances and moving, moving long distances from an energy perspective. It's probably a lot of things. And it may have arisen many times, I think you can't say any more, you know, again, you're talking to someone who's been sort of beat over the head by their own discovery. So you've found things that people that I know others didn't predict or expect within time and space, like on when the lady for example, or, or was the diva, so I happen to probably have a very, sort of rose colored image of the theories of of that until we build and we will build a much better fossil record. But I suspect bipedalism has arisen in many different forms over time, whether it comes from a single sort of adaptive lineage, or it arose sort of, you know, like, like a watershed coming out of the sky in many different ways. I don't know yet.
Nick Jikomes 24:23
Are there any? You know, I would imagine that one way, potentially, that you would start to think about something like that is, if when you are discovering fossils that show evidence of bipedalism, you also have some correlated factor in the ecology that might go with it, like maybe a change in the density of the forest. Is there anything like that, that tends to correlate with,
Lee Berger 24:47
like, well, you know, again, I think that unfortunately, we're, you're you're speaking to someone who's in the very early stages of field, the fields very young and A lot of you know, the first, the first 50 to 70 years of that field was spent stamp collecting, going out and looking at hominid fossils and not worrying about its context. And perhaps the way the later generations have tended to observe context, but but the real money's gone into finding dominance because they were rare, they get you on the cover of nature and that sort of thing, and a lot less time on sophisticated analysis of the ecologies, not just broad ecologies, but ecology specific to where those hominids are found. And sometimes, unfortunately, the hominids don't come with great ecologies, and, and a lot of our advances and things like geochronology, such had been made in the last 2030 years, a lot like being driven by you know, the computer age, and that you're in a lot of the sort of, you know, where our advances were moving like this, they move like this, anyone who deals with technology knows that that's true. And we're in the same state. So I would be reticent to take the sort of ecological pictures we're drawing 2030 4050 years ago, and apply them with any level of sophistication to direct correlation with the sort of evolutionary I see, I know, I said, I'm, I'm probably giving you like the worst interview ever.
Nick Jikomes 26:21
I mean, it's just very hard because you know, the, the fossil record is necessarily going to be so sparse.
Lee Berger 26:29
No, but it's not. It's not that's also a myth. That's what I want to debunk. I think it's sparse because we quit looking because we believe the mythology of hominid fossils are rare. They're not fair. I mean, mighty see, without being have discovered more, we discovered an equal number of individual hominid fossils to the entire fossil record. In the last six years, we discovered an equal number of hominid fossils to the entire pre existing fossil record in southern Africa, if not, in the whole of Africa. They're not rare. Okay, the problem is, we we, we sold a story to ourselves that they were rare. The grant agencies then funded us to look in places where they are. And we created self fulfilling prophecy. They were finding as we open up sites, and we're going to be opening it up more in the very near future that are not rare and, and we should have been perhaps, collecting those ecologies and that funnel diversity and studying those in a different way. And looking different places, they're not going to be rare in other places on as we move into other areas of Africa and other areas out of Africa, we need more explored, we need to reinvent an age of exploration and discovery.
Nick Jikomes 27:49
So are you effectively saying that we at least partly didn't know how or where to look for these types of fossils? Because we presupposed that they were so rare? And if so, what sort of what's your method for choosing where to look?
Lee Berger 28:06
So I'm kind of saying that, but I'm also saying that we got attracted to you. So yes, we believed our own man. We also gravitated towards areas that that had certain types of records. And there are areas with with better records that that we could look in so that they I you know, if you talk to me a decade ago, or 13 years ago, I would have given you a very clear answer on where to look, I would have given you all kinds of geological reasons. Now, I know not to give that answer that we need to encourage people to look in, in in both the same type of places where we can make discoveries fast, and places where we haven't. I'm reticent to answer your question and sort of dictate what the next generation will look for. Because my own life experiences said, the more we break the mold of where we're looking, the better chance we have of making discoveries. It you know, it's backyard syndrome. Right. You know, yeah, you've heard that term, right? Yeah. It places you think you know, the best are the places you actually see the least in. So that's why everyone gets on an airplane and travels 10s of 1000s of miles away from their own home, to go look for things because it's gonna be places where people haven't looked like it's actually a self fulfilling prophecy. Look in your own backyard. That's what I did, eventually took me 17 years to learn.
Nick Jikomes 29:37
And so is that are you referring to there the rising star cave and the discovery string to sediba first. Okay. What was that one
Lee Berger 29:44
discovered, are about 13 kilometers away from rising star. We're actually on that just after 13th anniversary of that discovery site called malapa. I began working at a place called Gladys fields. 17 years worth working. And then eventually, when I discovered Google Earth, at least became the last human being on Earth to discover Google Earth and started discovering that there were caves and other fossil bearing sites in the vicinity of this most explored area on the planet are these very things that I was working in one kilometer away from Gladys fail, I discovered this side of malapa, they became one of the richest sites on the continent of Africa, the new species called Australopithecus sediba, that we would eventually name and then started working on that. And then, of course, Coleman miletti, came along. And the rising star cave system is, you know, 800 meters from the side of swartkrans. And about a kilometer and a half inside of a container, the longest running excavation is in Africa, certainly, if not the world, and it was right under our nose. And then, you know, more recently, during COVID, we discovered this just incredible hominid site 500 meters from there. We just because we, you know, you don't look for great things, right, where you're working, because you've been there. It's a repeating story that backyards in the eye. And every lecture I've ever given, I talk about it, I tell it, I've done so for the last 15 years, and don't seem to listen to my son.
Nick Jikomes 31:27
Can you walk people through the beginning of the story of the discovery of Homo miletti? At the rising star cave? What What were you looking for? Were you digging, were you searching.
Lee Berger 31:39
So when the when I discovered sediba, in 2008, I'd use Google Earth, I create this vast map of sites in an area that had about 100 known cave sites is sort of delimited region, just outside Johannesburg, where all these historical great discoveries have been made, Mrs. plays and robust roster scenes. And it was thought to be totally explored, I used Google Earth and suddenly realized that we're just dozens of caves or hundreds of caves over hundreds and hundreds, if not 1000s of these sites in that blue model. And so that led discovery of MLOK, which was, you know, a Discovery of Life, three special editions of science and, you know, living the dream that I could exploring, and then we were building a structure over the site is of city of malapa, Orissa Devo was discovered this. That's the story there. The we were building a structure over so we can excavate because we found organic remains other amazing things at this little site, and it locked me out of the site. And I realize I'm exploring. And so I wanted to get back in the field. But I didn't want to, you know, just repeat the same exercise I'd done in 2008 When I made all those discoveries. So I enlisted the help of former students and some amateur cavers, to use that bat to go underground into these vast underground systems. Now, at that time, there were sort of a mythology that you wouldn't find anything underground because that was young deposits, the older deposits were on the surface of the earth or roads, showing you older stuff in the caves or forming underneath it so people younger, wouldn't give me good stuff. And, and, and so I sent him out with this map. And, you know, within a month and a half, Fiat a my, my sort of gate, intercom bell went one night where I was getting periodic reports and Kincaid and Steve Tucker and federal Dillashaw, opened up a laptop and showed me a picture that I couldn't believe they were but look primitive hominids lying literally on the surface and dirt of this very, very hard to get to cave system. And that launched what would become known as a rising star expedition where National Geographic agreed to fund really recklessly expedition and I put a Facebook ad out to find people who could fit to a 14 centimeter slot. That was 12 vertical meters, that's the Americans 40 feet 40 feet. This narrow, vertical thing we called the chute into this chamber that I was going to recover a single skeleton because that would be spectacular. Fossils are rare, which turned out to be you know, 1000s of remains of this, this this creature and we're miletti this tiny brain hominid that has a flat face as primitive have been derived characters. And then we have we have we have not only that chamber, but we call the dinaledi chamber chamber is called Rising Star. Out 1000s of individual remains in there, but then the entire cage system three and a half kilometers is full of their bodies in different locations. And we've continued.
Nick Jikomes 35:22
So, okay, I mean, I have a lot of questions about this first, before we get to like the actual meat me too. Before we get to the actual fossils, I want to finish sort of painting a picture of this cave system, it sounds like it's not a giant, big cavernous cave that you walk into from the ground level. It's a complex system of very narrow passages, what does it really look like on the inside?
Lee Berger 35:46
It's a mixture of almost everything you could imagine. It's a mixture of large, cavernous areas with the leg heights as the lag mites but the majority of the system of the three and a half to four kilometers, I guess, now, getting larger as we explore are relatively narrow passages and shoots that open up into sort of room sized chambers and have side passages. Oh, built along a fault system in the Dolomites. It's incredibly complex.
Nick Jikomes 36:23
And so you said you have 1000s of specimens? How many unique individuals do you think are represented for miletti?
Lee Berger 36:30
Ah, that's that's that's kind of hard, because it keeps surprising us because, you know, you're tempted to keep, you know, our temptation is keep reducing the numbers, but the numbers get larger, between the dental Leti chamber, the hill, anti chamber remote, other chambers, the list City Chamber, and then some other discoveries that we haven't excavate yet. I, I think conservatively, we well above 30. And that's super conservative, because unlike most excavations, because the hominid aren't that rare. We've left most of them underground, we take out, you know, small portions. And, and so I I'd say we're 30 Fenn, there may be double to triple that easily in areas that we know, dozens and dozens of.
Nick Jikomes 37:22
So, you know, based on our knowledge so far, what would you say are like the salient anatomical features of this species compared to say modern humans on the one hand, and something like a chimpanzee on the other hand?
Lee Berger 37:35
Okay, I mean, let me start with with the skull, since I've got one here, they have a very small brain. Their brain is incredibly small. It's approaches that have Australopithecines even chimpanzee.
Nick Jikomes 37:48
Could you hold your head? Yeah, okay. Yeah,
Lee Berger 37:53
well, now you get my idea, right. So when I when I when I when I hold it close with thick, but that's what I think people are stunted. Look at the size of that, you know, and it sort of, when you look at it next to my face, that's right next to ear to ear, on these to the brains about a third to a quarter of the size of my brain, they have a flattened face, they almost have no nose. They do have this kind of super orbital torus here that that is common in some hominids, but not very well developed. What's striking is is sort of the shape the cranium, those very like it's not like most common sexually more like homosapiens. It's actually very advanced in that the teeth are very small. They're human size, but they're shaped like very primitive hominids. There's no chin, which you can see here. There's no developed chin on it. So the cranium is is this weird mixture of primitive and really advanced traits. The body continues that shoulders that are very ape like, indicate some climbing a conical thing shaped thorax like an ape and some early Australopithecines, but then it becomes more and more and more human as you you reach the more disproportion so the hands while curved, well quite curved. Do you mind me gain up away from the camera? Go get a hand. Oh, yeah. Yeah, great. Hold on, hold on a moment.
Nick Jikomes 39:25
So so for those just listening on the audio will try to do a good job of describing this, but LEUs, you know, holding up fossil reconstructions of just a moment ago, the skull of Homo naledi. And now he's bringing my hands.
Lee Berger 39:39
My area here is filled with example. This is a hand Oh, no, no, no. Okay. Well, the proportions are somewhat humanoid. Certainly this part of the hand for human like the thumb is hyper elongate. So what we would typically have thought an ape would be the reverse of threaded They would have very long fingers here, and a very short thumb, right? Because they're climbing they're grasping, we tend to think of a long thumb as being a human thing, relative to other things. Now, let me give you an example. You still have smaller, you can see how small these out how small these fingers are. And let me put them in basically anatomical position. To my, now I'm putting the wrist bones about where the wrist bones are. And look, you see us how short they are. You see, they're very, very short. That's right. But now look at the thumb in the same anatomical position.
Nick Jikomes 40:35
The thumb is it's comparable to yours.
Lee Berger 40:38
Yes, I think of that. So it's almost got a, a hyper ability that we tend to think of is human what's driving that we have no idea. Yet they're they're relatively, they're very curved, in fact, relative to human curvature, which is is about there. So it's this odd admixture of what we used to think of is incredibly primitive, and incredibly derived things, some of them held on their best foot the same way, the foot is extremely, extremely human, like as you approach a heel, and yet it has some curvature of the distal to the legs, from a basically just below the pelvis down or, or almost entirely in the pelvis, however, isn't human at all. It's got a very primitive characters got very flattened femoral necks, very tiny femoral heads and a flattened, flared pelvis, like the astrophysics was all that mean, I have no idea. And no one else does not. Right now, they, if you looked at that home, and people said, so when we announced it, they said, Oh, well, this is just either a primitive Homo erectus, whatever that means. Basically, what they were saying was Tom, and it should be 2 million years old, two and a half, you know, as primitive, or more primitive, and things like homelab. That's what you would say, if you were just looking. At the time when we discovered it, of course, we found out that it is 250,000 years to 300,000 years of existence, same time, we thought only modern humans existed in Africa. And in fact, at the same time, we see an explosion of of a more advanced culture query here in southern.
Nick Jikomes 42:31
So So what you're saying, if I'm hearing you, right, is this thing looks like it's super, super old and ancient. But in fact, it's only a quarter million years old. And at the same time, potentially, at the same place, potentially even interacting, you can imagine, there would have been the what you would call modern human with fairly advanced cultural features,
Lee Berger 42:54
I think that's going to be the real i That to me is going to be perhaps the real thing that we're all gonna have to grapple with over the next two days. We had all these suppositions these idea that modern humans had this sort of inevitable rise. Archeology was following this pattern where we moved from the early stone age to an intermediate, early Stone Age, middle Stone Age, middle Stone Age, too late stone age, late stone age to the various later toolkits like the Iron Age and all of that, it all look great. Except discoveries like this destroy that it didn't happen that way. We thought that it was all being driven by big brains. And there was this inevitable march towards a bigger and bigger brain? Oh, you know, if I have to be utterly blunt in my sort of assessment of where we are, we don't know that any of the anything that looked like homosapiens actually lived down here in southern Africa, at a quarter of million. The fossil record is Paulie, the discoveries that we associate with either archaic human Sapiens or homo sapiens, they'll come from terrible geological context. And I'm including those from like Ethiopia that were, you know, we think are securely dated like 180,000 years or so, you know, the Unfortunately, things like Homer miletti also because we suspect they were doing very complex behaviors, perhaps the burying their dead. In those ways, you know, if those are burials in 180,000, did that in Ethiopia, then you don't know how old they were picked up off the surface, effective him things like Kabwe, you saw home over dz insists or some people call? It comes from a landmine. You can't use dating techniques to do it florists bad, the contact is terrible. So, you know, we don't we don't have that correlation in any finite nature between these large brain things. look like us. And this doesn't look like us at all. And, you know, we're with genetics, we're seeing things like inter aggressions occurring, there's clearly was an integration with another species. And we've Southern Africa, when you say introgression, you basically mean
Nick Jikomes 45:17
me eggs? Yes, yes,
Lee Berger 45:19
yes, maybe next year, we had sex with another species and a quarter million years in southern Africa. Is it? Is it? I don't know. You know, people like Chris stringer say, No, it's got to be the big brain cowboys. But that's kind of on an idea that that's the way it should be in our mental picture. But, you know, how do you explain the things in home on the levee that are only shared with homeless sake, that aren't shared with these archaic homeless, a pIans. And are more reticent things? I think it's really, really complex. I don't know, if you follow me on social media, about 10 days ago or so I kind of was doodling one night and drew this kind of picture of this sort of complex interactions of hominids that I think is, you know, I think we're gonna go through a really messy, wonderful phase of, of having to say, we don't know, and it isn't working, you know, the way we thought it did, and out of that may not happen next year, five years, or 10 years, but in 20 or 30 years, we're gonna, we're gonna begin to knit this story together. It isn't it isn't the story that I learned in anthropology in the 1980s. It isn't a story that any student learned in the 90s, nowhere near in the first part of the 21st century, that I'm 100% Sure,
Nick Jikomes 46:55
I this is gonna sound weird. And I'm not even that big of a Star Wars or a sci fi fan, but I almost am imagining something like Star Wars, where you've, you've got this universe, where there's a bunch of humans and things that kinda look like humans and things that look a little bit more different. And they're all sort of contemporaneous and potentially interacting with each other. One thing I want to ask you about is, you mentioned there are so many specimens in this cave, are is the volume and the number of specimens that you're seeing in a cave like this, driven purely by like a geological thing, like the cave formed after they, they, the fossils were somewhere else, or were these hominids going into the cave and then dying. Yeah, they're
Lee Berger 47:36
going in the cave. Now, that that there's the million dollar question or million year question that we're going to deal with? is, are they are they? Are they going in there? Are they being taken in there by their relatives dead and, and placed there? That's what we, we think it's a we think it's a complex ritual practice. Other people say no, it's got to be a natural practice, but largely not based on any scientific evidence, just that we can't have something with a brain that size, doing something that complex. I think that animal modern animal studies, studies of birds and other things have kind of, you know, we got to get over this Arrogance of being human. Other animals are complex. Now, what is really cool about this, you know, even gives me chills when I talk about is, you know, just think if, if this non human species that's not that's not, you know, that's, that's all, it doesn't have almost anything that we would have defined as human. Till till now in it, if they were ritually disposing of their dead in this day, what if they're also the maker of a lot of that complex archeology that we were attributing to the rise of the modern human brain? It's that surrounding him in the surface is covered with a complex emergent archaeology, we call the early Middle stone age at that time, what if then makers, how fascinating is that? What if another species of animals, maybe distantly related to us was inventing or utilizing complex ritual and, and practices related to death and dying and all the things that that means, right? I mean, I'm sure your mind is going to well, does that mean they had, you know, other things?
Nick Jikomes 49:41
So so? Well, I mean, what is some of the circumstantial evidence that makes you think that this was ritual practice? Are there any artifacts that might suggest that
Lee Berger 49:51
so? I'm gonna be cautious with how I answer that because of the timing of this interview. We have not announced any artifacts directly related with Homer. I see our initial idea, the initial hypotheses of, of related to ritual practice was, they are there alone, they're no other animals with the no other fauna. They're in these remote locations in a variety of different situations. And they're the only thing there. If we argued and still, I've seen no one refute this, if you found humans in exactly this situation, there would not be no doubt whatsoever that this was a mortuary case. It's because they're not humans, that it gives I think archaeologists and people who deal with this sort of thing nightmares. I will say that, within the not distant future, we have what I would consider even stronger evidence that this is indeed a nonhuman animal, practicing ritual mortuary practices in these cases, what is fascinating about that is that it's occurring. You know, 200, plus 1000 years before we had any inkling that modern humans.
Nick Jikomes 51:26
So a couple places that my brain goes with us right away are, you know, presumably, A, it's very dark in these caves. And it sounds like they were going a fair distance into the cave, hundreds of meters, since since I can safely assume they weren't using the flashlight on their iPhone to light the way. Is there any indication that they were using fire to actually get into
Lee Berger 51:50
it? You know, your your assumption on the iPhone is just an assumption. You know, it's funny that, that, that that is so surprising to people. We have evidence of, of control fire in, in hominins, that go back well over a million years. I seems to be this bias towards it's got to be a big brain to use fire. But Homer erectus is clearly using FAR. The oldest, one of the best examples of potentially oldest controlled use of fire on the planet, probably well over a million years is 800 meters from rising star? Why wouldn't something like this PEPFAR? Do we have direct evidence, you know, I've been on a fast learning curve of last five or six years have, you know, direct evidence of Fire is a difficult thing to find, particularly a great time we're working on.
Nick Jikomes 52:53
So the other place that my head would go, so if this hypothesis is correct, and these primates were intentionally going into the cave, and this is a mortuary situation, they have some sort of notion of death, and potentially they're using fire to light the way. Have you seen anything yet? It sounds like maybe the answer is no. Have you seen any sort of cave paintings or symbolism of any kind?
Lee Berger 53:19
No, not yet. Again, we we're, we're in constant exploration of this cave, and we are working on some things that are very, very interesting. We have CK paintings are dead kind of ritual, but we don't see those and 99.9999% of the billions of human barons he sees, you know, that's, that's, that's not calling. One of the problems we have is he says, we sit and stare into the past. And we in try try to impose a sort of National Geographic image of what a burial could look like, without even acknowledging that the vast majority of humans who've ever lived and died, were buried that way, weren't disposed of in those ways. They're exceptional, because they make the headlines. And so, you know, we are almost putting a higher standard on the past, then we are on on the we are on ourselves in our own evidentiary. As I said, if we had found this accumulation of humans, that wouldn't have been a single question. This is not a ritual mortuary practice, do.
Nick Jikomes 54:41
What about DNA are these specimens one where it's plausible, you'll be able to extract and sequence ancient DNA.
Lee Berger 54:50
We've tried on a couple of specimens in the very early stages of this and didn't succeed. We are working on both Ancient proteins in ancient DNA, I, I wouldn't bet against us.
Nick Jikomes 55:06
Interesting. And so potentially using this species as an example, but as a general question as well, how do you start to think about something like, say, the teeth, and what that can tell you about the potential diet habits of an ancient human,
Lee Berger 55:23
um, you know, one of the, we we've actually published papers on Sonoma miletti, if you just Google, use Google Scholar and see that, we know that karma miletti is doing things with its teeth, even the small that we typically only see much larger to ancient hominids like Paranthropus and that eating very hard things i, we will learn a lot about that work complex things about the lady is because of its circumstances, we only find homeowner, lady, we don't find all the animals and stuff around. It's not that it's not a it's not a living site. It's not a site where there's fauna that we can see eaten, and that so we're doing a lot of work. Now, we're actually opening up some other sites in the next few months that are in the region of the same temporal link. So that we can actually begin to build what the ecology and environment of miletti was, outside of these particular circumstances. You know, we're, we're in this odd privileged state of having I think it's fair to say the, the singly richest situation of any early hominid species ever discovered on the planet? And yeah, we know nothing about its world outside.
Nick Jikomes 56:37
So it almost sounds like so the fact that you're you're finding only those fossils, I guess that's consistent with the hypothesis that this was sort of a mortuary or intentional situation, because I guess you're not finding cave bears that would have eaten them. You're not finding butchered animal bones and other stuff, right there with it? Nothing. Interesting. So it's, it's
Lee Berger 56:59
it? It's, and if you have answers, please tell me.
Nick Jikomes 57:06
How do you you know, I'm very interested in trying to think about the social behavior here, but maybe as a way to come at at that indirectly? What is the diversity of individuals that you're finding in the cave? Is it? Is it mostly older individuals and adults? Is it children? Is it males and females? Is it a mixture? What is the distribution look like?
Lee Berger 57:26
It's everything. And and, you know, again, I'm cautious because we deliberately left many of them in because we want to leave them for the next generation to test questions that we develop, you know, of this. But but it's it's everything from near neonates to extremely elderly individuals. This is this one is Nao, he's a, we believe he's an old male, an older male, probably in his late 30s to fit approaching 50 something depending on how how they were aging, and there were a state right down to neonics. We've got everything. And we've got ones that appear to be females. But I think we will swap that out. I mean, one of the great things about pretty anomic is we like to build sex every individually. That's exciting.
Nick Jikomes 58:17
I see. So you actually have methods to do with the potential, the potential damage? I see. I see.
Lee Berger 58:25
We're at the very front of all that's
Nick Jikomes 58:29
interesting. So where, where are some of these new sites that you're looking now? And what when, when you're thinking about where to look next? How I mean, so much of this is just chance driven? How, how, how
Lee Berger 58:42
I'm gonna stop you that's not where we're, you know, we're an exploration is a science. And what we're doing is building on previous discoveries, we just only had about 13 or 14 years to learn about this new era of discovery. And so what you're gonna see over the next several years is supplying those both the sites that we knew existed and new sites. We're going it Dr. canalway. Merleau Ponty is going back to Gladys, Phil, where I cut my teeth for 17 years, finding almost nothing. And one of the reasons she's going back in there is to show that we didn't know we were looking for you know, we just opened up this new site during COVID which goes by the exciting name of the 105 site, just a number that was given to it and it's now already one of the richest hominid sites ever discovered right on right in front of us literally right in front of us and and we're in the midst of that discovery with this extraordinary fossil bomb and it's coming out every day and and the archaeology in the in the fauna that's around that it I just don't think we knew what we were doing. got new eyes.
Nick Jikomes 1:00:02
So when you're thinking about looking for a new site is it sounds like you, you have a method for how you decide like, how do you start ruling out places? And what are the features that are sort of front and center in your mind for where you would even start?
Lee Berger 1:00:17
So I would actually suggest, I hope I'm not giving the impression. But what we're trying to do now is actually reverse that psychology. I think that we used to explore like that. I think we used to look for sites with the conceptual idea that they had to conform. When I first arrived in South Africa, everyone said, What do you got to look for is blue. Because the tongue child had been found with the boons and the first fossil that came out search contain that brought two sons attention was baboons. Same story went for swartkrans. And that, and that led to a self fulfilling prophecy. What we're really trying to do is say, actually, these things are rare. We're gonna get laughter olds, we're gonna have to some of the we're actually deliberately going to sites, it shouldn't happen by everything we know. And almost every time we're proving ourselves that, that, you know, you shouldn't have these biases. In science, it's again backyards. And
Nick Jikomes 1:01:19
I'm, I'm interested to know more about tool use. So it sounds like, there's certainly not been announced yet any tools found in the rising star cave system?
Lee Berger 1:01:30
I didn't, I didn't say that. I just didn't I did not I didn't confirm.
Nick Jikomes 1:01:40
So if we go back a quarter million years, to the time that Homo miletti was was using this cave system, what you know, elsewhere in the world, what was homosapiens doing with tools, what kind of tools were common, I can
Lee Berger 1:01:54
tell you that across southern Africa, right outside the cave system at that same day, our blades and early blades and lithics and stuff all over the landscape. Okay, so every archaeologist, you might interview and say, Oh, that's Sapiens, that's the emergent of the early Middle stone age. And that's when we're developing the human mind. I go, Well, you don't have any of them sapiens. But he did have his home on the ladder.
Nick Jikomes 1:02:19
And so, you know, a common a common theme that keeps coming up here is that we, modern humans have had this tendency, and you see this, not just in your field, but in many fields of science, we've had this tendency of really thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe, and the center of this whole story of evolution. And, you know, from Darwin, all the way to the discoveries that you're making that story kind of just, it just breaks down again and again. And again, why do you think we have this tendency to think that, you know, we were, we are the pinnacle of everything, and everything was leading towards us.
Lee Berger 1:02:57
Because we're only human. I mean, you know, we we sit and observe the world, and we see ourselves is the only we have seen ourselves for 1000s of years is the only Cognizant at all I mean, every one of our religious stories is built around that, right. Every major book of religion begins with a story of why are we unique, because clearly, we've sat and stared at the world and understood that we are so superior to a donkey, or to a anything that we encounter. And we finally reached a point where we actually begin to test them. And we find it fails, that not only are we not superior to these other animals in the living world, and they are often remarkably complex in different ways. But it's not true in the past.
Nick Jikomes 1:04:00
So how so? So another thing that's sort of another theme that that I've learned from you, and people like John Hawkes is, you know, there were so many species of humans that were contemporaries of one another. And there was so much introgression, there was so much mating, actually, that at least more than we thought, which was, you know, originally we thought, basically nothing right, that there was almost none. But it was happening with enough frequency that we can see it in the genomes of Neanderthals in our own genome and elsewhere. You know, what does that make you think about in terms of contemporary humans and and how we should maybe rethink, rethink ourselves and how we interact with one another if those types of interactions were happening for so long?
Lee Berger 1:04:43
Well, firstly, I say that, I think it goes, I go further than you do. It's not just interaction with other humans, it's other species. We are integrating or mating with things that that technically fall out of the realm of the definition of this species variation. That's remarkable. It took us a long time to get to that that point. And I think it's pretty established right now. You know, it is remarkable to think that a decade ago, as recently as decade, we scientists would have scribed ourselves not plenty. I mean, if you look at recorded lectures for me, sort of 90s it was giving an idea that we were this thoroughbred. We were this out of Africa, thoroughbred. We were a purebred species out of Africa model that dominated the world through that we weren't breeding with other things. We just we just want we're more like a SPCA specialists. And anyone who breeds dogs and those dogs knows the difference between these purebreds are not as fit as these, you know, these these sort of these these mutts and curves and stuff that you get, and we're one of the and that's what makes us great. We're this constant amalgamation is graded stream of integrating with picking up things that work and things don't work. We just got to get out of his mind that that it's this was this inevitable march to perfection. It wasn't we are just this this great amalgamating species that that that have had become this Clovelly, dominant, medium sized vertebrate species for the time being and a very dangerous one.
Nick Jikomes 1:06:46
So with respect to Hmong miletti, what would you say are some of the big answerable questions that you and your team are looking into right now?
Lee Berger 1:06:55
I think we got the chance to actually own those for the first time in the history of this field, look at it a bonafide a population of an ancient species that was probably closely related to each other, we will look at variation, we'll understand sex, individual sex within it, we I think we'll understand relationships, I think we'll know within five years, whether Nicoletti was related to us or not. I think any answer to that is going to be shocking and remarkable. Whether it is or isn't whether we carry genome in us or not. You know, I mean, if you think of if our, I think we will test the behavioral things we haven't, I think we'll come to some fairly firm conclusions that will, will convince or not parts of the communities of the depth of complexity and time, you know, and understand whether it's emerged first and other species or multiple times in the past. I mean, you know, just let's just delve back into things like the the question of ritual mortuary practice, what if, you know, it's one thing to say, well, oh, well, maybe we learned, you know, we derived mortuary practices from something like Gillette, they just invented it. First, we just didn't see it in the fossil record. But what if it was independent, but if it was autonomous, but if it is occurred previously, in species that aren't related to us? Because what spills off of ritualized mortuary practice, recognition of deaths of mortality, or things is built off that? What if it's occurred? Many times in the past? How fascinating would that be? How deeply would that force us to understand it? Or if we did get it from them? You know, what does that mean? Is there a god gene universe? You know, is there self awareness gene that makes us aware and we picked it up not from the way we thought I gained this big brain, but from this tiny brain thing that was doing it already. And, and if it's present in something that looks like Nollet, which looks like a 2 million year old or plus hominid? When did it start? You know, did start when we found it? Or did it start hundreds of 1000s or millions of years before? These are the things that were, you know, how exciting for this next generation, the scientists that have large amounts of evidence, and all these foundational questions in front of us and, and the technology and the mechanism tested. And, and the idea that there's more out there to be found. Remember, not a scientist, including myself, prior to 2013 even predicted the conceptual idea of creature like that on the African landscape at that time, how cool is that? Because if there's that, what else is?
Nick Jikomes 1:10:06
Yeah, no, no, it's amazing to think about. I mean, even in my own lifetime, as someone who's not in the field, I would have never guessed. And even when I was in college, I didn't get the impression that anyone was going to be finding sort of this density of of fossils for humans or anything, anything like it anywhere. It just,
Lee Berger 1:10:25
it just had, it's happening all the time.
Nick Jikomes 1:10:29
And so I it sounds like there's many teams of people, it's certainly not just yours working on working on this general area of ancient humans. What are some? What are some of the other sites in the world that are really exciting right now? We're
Lee Berger 1:10:42
not I mean, you're getting this explosion of stuff in the in Indonesia, the islands, you know, have clearly adaptations going on that have great time to there, you're getting the great stuff of the contact points between Africa and Europe and Asia, you know, both on the African side and the Asian side, the European side, you know, it's, I wouldn't even, I wouldn't, I wouldn't, I wouldn't be arrogant enough to pick a spot where the next big things are coming from, because it's happening everywhere. As this generation begins to understand, there's more out there.
Nick Jikomes 1:11:22
Another question I have is, you know, this is all very exciting stuff. I think almost anyone, you don't need to be a paleoanthropologist to find all of this stuff captivating. I'm interested to know how much of this research is going on with the additional question being who's funding it? And and, you know, is it underfunded? Is there an explosion of funding for it right now? And we're gonna see more for that reason, what does that look like?
Lee Berger 1:11:47
It's massively underfunded. I mean, and I think that's part of the problem, that the field is dominated by a few central characters for so many decades, that we're just absorbing but funding us and messaging that we shouldn't be funding. Other things. You know, if you read, you probably read some of the papers that come from sort of the late 90s and early 2000s, where they were literally the top scientists in field saying we should stop training paleoanthropology. There's nothing left. Literally,
Nick Jikomes 1:12:19
like they, I mean, literally saying more or less that they had already found everything.
Lee Berger 1:12:23
Go read, go read the state of paleoanthropology at the millennium. A Tim Why 2001 It will be stop training paleoanthropologists we are not going to discover new species. No one who's not handled the fossils should touch a fossil. You know, there are careerist and there shouldn't be any one. But as pure scientists that made of exploration is over. It killed funding. And it we still haven't recovered from that. We need to be pouring huge amounts of resources into exploration, field research in parallel with the extraordinary particularly molecular work going on. In the world, to really bring this into an age where it's a science and not a stamp collecting system.
Nick Jikomes 1:13:16
What would you say to someone who, you know, I could imagine someone in the world not necessarily an anthropologist, but maybe it's someone at a at a funding agency saying, well, we've got a lot of contemporary problems. We need to be working on contemporary medical problems and things like this, what are we actually going to learn a practical value from this kind of field?
Lee Berger 1:13:37
I'll anyone who needs to, you know, I hope that we've reached the stage in human evolution. We don't need to explain to someone why we need to study history, why we need to understand ourselves. Heck, they figured that help several 1000 years ago? No, I suppose. But why we need to understand the past to truly understand the present. Science done as if it's in a vacuum of Eureka moment. Isn't science at all. Science is part of all signs of biological is a product of understanding what is coming. And that's how you look to the future. You don't do it by just examining.
Nick Jikomes 1:14:25
You know, just just to ask a couple closing questions. You've had a long and very interesting career studying this stuff for a while now. At a very high level, how would you say overall, this has changed you know, how you think about what humanity is and where it's going.
Lee Berger 1:14:45
When I got into this field, I was a believer in the idea that that that we understood the broad template of human evolution. I know that's not true. And as a scientist, that that is I kind of feel that I'm in the middle of a moment, as all my colleagues are kind of the difference between where we were in the 1960s and 70s, with the concern with the idea of observing space, and what was out there, and what would ultimately be visible to the extraordinary place, that, that, as we patrol the universe from afar, that we are now I think we're kind of in the sort of late 70s, early 80s of that space exploration and understanding the universe and physics and that in human evolution, that is so exciting to realize that the best is yet to come. That we are on the verge of the greatest age of discovery and exploration in archaeology, and understanding this deep human journey. And this is we're at this moment where we both where we can see that where we can visualize it, no, you're in the space. Most scientists don't get to live through a book like that. I feel very privileged.
Nick Jikomes 1:16:15
It sounds like you've you've definitely got some exciting discoveries that are that that haven't been released yet. Do you? Or can you give us an approximate timeframe for when we might learn more about Amon miletti?
Lee Berger 1:16:28
Oh, you're going to within next month or two is an extraordinary paper coming out? And I think you'll see sort of a progression of really great stuff coming out of almost every six months. Just don't hold your breath here.
Nick Jikomes 1:16:44
Well, that's very exciting to hear. Another thing I want to ask you about is, you know, you sort of mentioned a few times that, you know, there's so much there's so many new fossils, there's so much new data, so many new discoveries to be made. And you keep talking about the next generation. I wonder if you can comment on, you know, what if you're interested in this field, but you're not necessarily the type of person that wants to physically dig up fossils? What other sorts of fields and types of expertise are you interacting with, to learn more about these ancient humans?
Lee Berger 1:17:14
Well, one of the beauties of this and you know, I've quit using and you probably heard me kind of avoiding the word paleoanthropologists. I think it's too constricting it has is this sort of narrowing down to anatomy and bones and that that was under the idea that that's all we ever have. This subject area of my new center that we've opened it fits here is called the Center for the exploration of the deep human journey. And the reason I chose that very long, sort of title is to reflect the globally multidisciplinary nature of the modern field, it'd be easier for me to tell you to save what fields we don't interact with, which is almost none. From physics, to engineering, to geochemistry, to geology, to chemistry, to molecular biology, to math, physics, statistics to, to computer sciences, to all of the traditional fields, they're all integral, and a must have part of this exploration of the deep human journey. So going to anything and figure a way to apply it understanding us.
Nick Jikomes 1:18:29
One of the, actually, the first guest I had on the podcast with us was this gentleman named Brian Moran rescue.
Lee Berger 1:18:37
He's a dear friend of mine. Okay, so we're collaborating with each other. Interesting, we're actually we are actually working together on the psychedelic problem and looking at exploiting and you can imagine, for very obvious reasons, of the things we've been talking about, oh coincide within this. And he and I are working on on joint proposals together, and through Harvard, and through Fitz, and through others. So we're in close contact, I think ever call with him this week. Kinder kiddo,
Nick Jikomes 1:19:07
can you sort of summarize what that line of thinking is and what you're looking for?
Lee Berger 1:19:13
Well, I mean, his he and I, you know, I've discovered a species that may be experimenting with the sort of concepts and concepts of introspection and pass which have opened up the idea of opening up sort of previously forbidden questions, if you will, that and and studies like his of looking at the way that mind altering substances and that may have affected our the very way we think language and all the all the things may have very direct test of the idea of us and other species developing these things into beauty is is that we've reached the point where it's no longer mad science, and some of the most testable science that we can do. We We can use mass spectrometers and other methods to actually test whether these animals and humans and others are, are using substances, what they're eating what they're ingesting in the past, and we've reached a stage where it's not fringe science anymore some of the central testable science that we can pursue. And when you're looking at the ideas of the exploration of the development of the mind, and US and other species, well, you know, we're naturally magnetize to each other.
Nick Jikomes 1:20:36
Yeah, I mean, I was fascinated by Brian's book and some of the Archeo chemical and botanical evidence that that he explored about, you know, humans 1000s of years ago, using things like architizer awry and other things and using their their knowledge of botany to intentionally ingest things for reasons that probably had to do with ritual ceremonies in religious practice. Well, and let me
Lee Berger 1:21:01
let me carry that thought a little further, you know, people often don't think about, you know, you asked earlier, I think you have something like what makes us human, or whether you're a human. And one of the interesting things which, which Brian and I talked about what we, people often don't think of is what actually does identify as humans, if it's not a big brain, if it's not this morphology, if it's not the toolkit, because we now know about the animals be that great complex, what is it? What are the universe that that that are amongst modern humans, but one is ritual practices related to death, that is a universe. As far as I'm aware, there's never been a modern human species or in the historical records or within archaeological records, that they don't practice some form of ritual behaviors related to death, and drug use mind altering substances. Amongst all animals that we're aware of so far, humans are the only ones that universally across all cultures utilize mind altering substances, some animals do so. But they tend to do it in populations or isolation in groups, but it's not universal species. Humans do it as far as we're for, universally. And then interesting. What if those are some of the parts of the definition of being human? We, we were a living pharmacist and scientist as well as a living spiritualist and that and what if that has occurred in other species, and whether that's part of the the thing that makes us
Nick Jikomes 1:22:44
so you know, for something like homeowner Leti, something living, you know, hundreds of 1000s, or even or even hundreds of 1000s of years ago or even older? What would evidence for ingestion of say a psychoactive plant or fungus look like? What What kind of evidence might you find?
Lee Berger 1:23:02
Therein lies the reason for having think tanks and groups? No one's ever asked that question. And we're now asking that we'll let you know.
Nick Jikomes 1:23:15
I'm my understanding is that there are methods being developed that have to do with teeth and teeth anatomy and bits of food and things that creatures were munching on can kind of get trapped and preserved inside the tooth. Is that is that
Lee Berger 1:23:30
my, my, my team's published in Nature on that it's a diva 2 million years.
Nick Jikomes 1:23:37
Interesting. What what kinds of things do you find with a creature that old? You?
Lee Berger 1:23:41
Well, you know, a decade ago, it was fine to list parts of plants, you know, the rigid parts of plants it used to hold them up and other parts you can find Paul, and you can find other areas now. Now we're looking at molecular biology and that and I don't know what the limits of that.
Nick Jikomes 1:24:05
Interesting. So so it is, within the realm of possibility that answer, we might get answers to the questions that we thought were almost not even askable questions not that long ago.
Lee Berger 1:24:17
I think it's within the realm of science.
Nick Jikomes 1:24:20
Interesting, Willie, I don't want to take too much more of your time. I know that you're on a very different time zone. And you've got plenty of exploring left to do. Are there any final thoughts that you want to leave people with about human evolution? Generally speaking,
Lee Berger 1:24:35
I just, you know, it kind of sound like a sort of rehearse phrase, but I truly do mean it. You know, if I can say one thing to everyone, no matter if you're old or young, or whatever entry, never stop exploring. That's the singular message that we we have a tendency to quit to believe that things have been fast. underseen don't stop exploring.
Nick Jikomes 1:25:06
We Berger, thank you for your time. My pleasure.