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21 September 2012 THE SKULL IN THE ROCK: HOW A SCIENTIST, A BOY, AND GOOGLE EARTH OPENED A NEW WINDOW ON HUMAN ORIGINS by Lee R. Berger & Marc Aronson, National Geographic, October 2012, 64p., ISBN: 978-1-4263-1010-2


“How is it we are here, on this path we walk

In this world of pointless fear filled with empty talk

Descended from the apes as scientist-priests all think

Will they save us in the end, we’re trembling on the brink”

-- Mike Pinder, “How Is It” (1970)


“Lee estimates that the odds of finding the bones of our oldest ancestors are ten million to one – that is the kind of gamble he likes.  As he says, ‘I always want to push boundaries.’  That is not just because he likes to take big risks – though he does – but because he wants to make big discoveries, and there is no larger challenge than helping to solve the mystery of human origins.

“How, and why, did we evolve from apes?  Which came first, walking on two legs or having a hand that made it easy to use tools?  What about our brains – which are much larger than those of chimps and organized in different ways – how did that happen?

“Reading Lucy gave Lee a vision of his life goal: hunting for the most crucial, and precious, clues to the story of humankind.  But Lucy was also a warning: fossil hunting requires the perfect blend of knowledge, guts and luck.  Lee had found what he loved: the most difficult mystery of all.”


I grew up working Saturdays and vacations on my parents’ residential construction sites, so it doesn’t faze me to read about a nine year-old boy -- out working with his paleontologist/professor dad – who discovers fossilized hominid bones from a previously-unknown ancestor to modern man.  But it sure as heck is fun to read about. 


I’ve heard of but never read a book about “Lucy,” the collection of fossilized bones discovered in 1974 that turned out to be a complete skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis.  The science and history in THE SKULL IN THE ROCK is explained so clearly that I could fully understand what the big deal is here, despite only having a passing knowledge of Lucy.

I have had my share of fun playing with Google Earth, so I can readily understand and appreciate how Lee utilized it to zero in on likely places to explore for the origins of humankind.

“We now believe that nature tried all sorts of experiments in the millions of years during which troops of animals that walked upright on two feet lived in Africa.  Making sense of this wide variety of bones has churned up so many more questions than answers that even the terms are changing.  We used to speak of ‘hominids’ – the large group including us, our ancestors, and our primate relatives.  Now Lee, and many other scientists, prefer to say ‘hominins’ – meaning only humans and our human-like relatives – treating this cluster as distinct from the chimpanzee, gorilla, bonobo, orangutan, and gibbon group.  But if experts argue over how to lump or split clear human and clear nonhuman, think of how difficult it is to map out what once lay between us.”

That, to me, makes more sense than the theories they taught me in 1970 when I last took a biology class.

The co-authors have given this photo- and imagined paintings-filled volume a fun, hands-on flavor by providing a number of series of captioned photos that demonstrate scientific processes utilized in the searching and evaluating of these new fossils.

I also like the very nifty website (http://www.scimania.org) that has been set up as a companion to the book and promises to provide further (and newly discovered) information on these and related topics.


I don’t usually get all excited about these sorts of fossil discoveries.  They sort of register and I move on.  But I am really excited about sharing this great new book about the kid who found the one-in-ten-million bones.


Richie Partington

Richie’s Picks http://richiespicks.com


Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/middle_school_lit/


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