Nautilus

The Man Who Used Facebook to Find an Extinct Human Species

In some sense, Lee Rogers Berger found himself and the drowning woman at the same time.

The Georgia native had just returned home after dropping out of Vanderbilt University, where terrible grades in his pre-law major and straight As in his electives had convinced him that he was ill-suited to law but well-suited to something else. For the time being, that something else was covering local news as a photographer.

One night, Berger was reporting from the banks of the Savannah River on a woman’s disappearance when he spotted something in his peripheral vision. He dropped his camera onto the ground, himself into the river, became the hero of the day, and discovered an uncanny talent: being in the right place at the right time.

Decades later, he pulled a similar trick with his career. While earning his Ph.D. in paleoanthropology in 1994, he began site work in South Africa on the advice of Donald Johanson, a co-discoverer of the 3-million-year-old hominin fossil popularly known as Lucy. After a few notable finds around the so-called “Cradle of Humankind” territory northwest of Johannesburg, Berger saw his career slow to a “bits and pieces” crawl.

On the very first day of exploring the site, they discovered 21 new cave sites.

One day in late 2007, sitting at home, fed up and worn down, Berger became the “last person on Earth” to discover Google Earth. Then something clicked. “I started plugging GPS coordinates in to look at the sites I’d seen in the ’90s, and I realized they were wrong,” he said. “The U.S. government had delivered error into my surveys

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