On being … worth exploring

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m interested in a lot of things. But, like most folks, there are also many things I’m not particularly interested in. One topic that’s never interested me is paleoanthropology. But, when a friend invited me to a National Geographic Live lecture by Lee Berger, a prominent paleoanthropologist and explorer, I said sure. To be honest, my main reason for saying yes was because I hadn’t seen this friend in some time and it would be a chance for us to catch up.

As we walked into the lecture, I confessed to my friend that I didn’t know a thing about the topic. (What I didn’t tell her was that, given my general lack of interest, I was more than a bit concerned I’d embarrass her by nodding off.) Anyway, I was relieved when she said she didn’t know anything about paleoanthropology either. She explained that she and her late husband had subscribed to the National Geographic Live series and had found past lectures interesting.

Pretty early on in the lecture, it was clear that staying awake wasn’t going to be a problem. Berger was enthusiastic about his work and he was a great storyteller. He started by explaining the different areas in Africa where major discoveries in his field had been made. He said he returned to one particular area in South Africa after some recreational cavers showed him photos of what might have been bones in a cave they explored. Based on what these cavers showed him, he headed out, taking his 9-year-old son for the ride. Shortly after they got to the area the cavers told him about, his son called him over to look at something he found attached to a rock.

Berger immediately identified the bits as a clavicle and part of a jaw. Yes, Berger has a PhD in paleoanthropology, but still, how could he identify that bit as a clavicle right there on the spot, I thought. Well, turns out his doctoral dissertation was on clavicle fossils. Coincidence doesn’t begin to describe the odds – Berger said he felt like he had won the lottery.

Since the fossils his son found were near the cave, not in it, they continued looking around. They soon found the narrow cave entrance. Getting in was going to be a non-starter for Berger – he was too big. To get to the chamber where the fossils were found (about 30 metres in) you had to pass through a small opening. And, once in, you came upon an even narrower passage – one that was only 18 centimeters wide (a bit more than seven inches). The only way through that part – which they named “Superman’s Crawl” – was to push one arm through, followed by that shoulder, then your head, the next shoulder, and so on. After making it through that, you had to climb a 15 metre stone ledge they named Dragon’s back, and then descend further into the cave to the chamber.

Once he had an idea of what he was dealing with, he organized an expedition. He began by putting out a call to find paleoanthropologists who were interested in helping look for fossils AND were small enough to fit through Superman’s Crawl. The parts of the job description I thought he left off was that you also had to be crazy AND adventurous beyond belief. Lots of young, eager paleoanthropologists applied and he ended up with a team of six women. Over the course of two expeditions, they uncovered over 1500 pieces of hominid bones belonging to at least 15 different individuals.

I left the lecture feeling inspired, but I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t that the lecture had sparked in me an interest in the origins of the human species. Nor was it one of those things that made me think, “Gosh, if I’d have heard this as a kid, maybe I’d have considered paleoanthropology as a career”. Undoubtedly, part of the positive feeling I had was appreciation for a story well told – after all, I’m a writer. But there was something more.

On the way home that night something made me think about an email exchange I had earlier that week with another friend. We had been talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton. After our initial conversation, she found a video of him and his family. The video was of them recreating a scene from the Sound of Music while on vacation in Salzburg, Austria.

In her email sending me the link to Miranda’s video, she commented, “His exuberance is very cool.” But then she added, “Perhaps, his family and my family could not be more different!” Given that she and her husband are both physicians and her son and husband are both avid hockey players, I think I understood what she meant.

After that little conversation flashed through my head, I realized I had the same feeling about Berger and those young women paleoanthropologists. The adventure and desire to explore things like that is completely foreign to me, and yet, I couldn’t help admire their exuberance.

Just as I made that connection, I understood why I felt uplifted by Berger’s lecture. What I realized is that observing the exuberance that fuels people on to exploring their dreams and passions – regardless of what they are – reminds us of the limitless possibilities within ourselves.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


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