Lee Berger, paleoanthropology’s Robespierre

330px-Homo_sapiens_neanderthalensisSometimes context is important when processing new information. Something huge is afoot in paleoanthropology, traditionally the study of ancient humanity predicated on analyzing morphological remains. Fossils. Though a fascinating discipline, unfortunately there’s always been an issue of supply and demand. There isn’t much supply of fossils, and there’s a lot of demand to analyze them. This means that monopoly power comes into play, as who has the fossils matters a great deal, not necessarily who has the great ideas. Some researchers have been known to sit on remains for decades. Access to particular field sites is also a precious commodity, and doled out to favorites and allies. Contrast this with the situation in modern genomics, as the swell of data is overwhelming the ability of researchers to analyze it (at least analyze it well!). Of course all of science is a human endeavor, and as such is subject to the whims of political and personal machination. But when the potential fame and glory is enormous, but resources few and far between, as is the case in paleoanthropology, the behind the scenes trench warfare can become quite brutal.

This is why what Lee Berger is doing is such a big deal. Last fall he quickly assembled a team funded by National Geographic to retrieve samples from an exceedingly rich site he happened to stumble upon. Dubbed the Rising Star Expedition the dig yielded ~1,200 remains, many of very high quality. Let that sink in. In a field where a few partial remains can reshape our whole understanding of the past, Berger is sitting on a sample size of over 1,000, many of quite high quality. But he’s not hoarding his find. Rather, he’s aiming to change the terms of how the game is played, and inviting researchers from all over the world to join him in a workshop to collaboratively analyze the results. Here’s the details of what’s going down from National Geographic:

The University of the Witwatersrand, through the Centre of Excellence in PalaeoSciences and the Evolutionary Studies Institute will be holding a unique workshop to study and describe recently discovered fossil early hominin material for a series of high impact publications. It is intended that the Workshop will be held in South Africa from early May until the first week of June 2014.

Output will include authorship on at least one high impact paper as well as continued collaboration and authorship on future research to which he/she contributes. Interested applicants should submit their CV’s, a brief summary of their skills or data sets that would be applicable to such a project (not to exceed 1500 words), and provide three letters of support from established scientists in the field.

Applications should be sent directly to Professor Lee R. Berger at risingstarworkshop@gmail.com and copied to his assistant Wilma.Lawrence@wits.ac.za. Please make the subject line “Rising Star Workshop 2014”.

So far it looks as if the information coming out is focusing on the raw numbers of fossils. This alone going to revolutionize the field. Berger is already an eminent paleoanthropologist, but by this act he has induced a professional inflection point. Things will never be the same. But it is also the case that the scientific yield is going to change the way in which we view the origin and evolution of hominins. I guarantee that. Some of the facts to come are going to blow your mind (and no, I don’t have an inspirational video to go along with that assertion).

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