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All posts for the day December 17th, 2015

Mystery Man, by Jamie Shreeve, photographs by Robert Clark

In 2015, Lee Berger received a great deal of publicity for the discovery of a new relative of homo sapiens that has been named homo naledi.  Part of the publicity was because of the finding and part was because of the way that Berger went about the investigation.

The bones which later became homo naledi were found in 2013 in the dinaledi chamber of a South African cave system called Rising Star by cavers named Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker.  The word “naledi” means “star” in Sotho.  “Dinaledi” is Sotho for “Chamber of Stars.”  The cavers were aware that Berger was looking for fossils, so when they found the bones in the dinaledi chamber, they brought them to Berger’s attention.

And this is where the controversy comes in. Berger went to Facebook to recruit credentialed scientists who were small of stature.  The way to the dinaledi chamber involves two passageways less than 10 inches (25.4 cm) wide.  The six most qualified applicants were all female. Then, rather than keeping the discovery under his hat for years while he decided how to classify them, he crowd-sourced the classification.  Berger had apparently around 50 scientists in to the site to help him classify the fossils.

None of the scientists had seen anything like these fossils.  Some of the teeth looked like modern human teeth, others looked primitive, and all of the other groups had the same experiences.  The hands had modern carpals and metacarpals, but the phlanges were curved, and so on.

Berger then added to the controversy by publishing in an electronic journal within two years of the find, rather than, again, sitting and waiting and publishing in a print journal.

This article made me kind of uncomfortable, because I am mildly claustrophobic.  It’s not pathological or anything — I can visit submarines and I climbed the Statue of Liberty all the way to the crown with no problem in 1988.  But the thought of having only eight inches of clearance between me and freedom made me kind of tense while reading this article.

Wild Heart of Sweden, by Don Belt, photographs by Orsolya and Erlind Haarberg

Wild Heart of Sweden is about the Laponian Area World Heritage Site, one of the largest wilderness areas in Europe.  Laponia is in the home region of the Sami people (formerly known as the Lapps).  We follow Belt as he visits this region in company with the owner of a wilderness outfitting company and his summer intern (who is herself part Sami).

And, once again, we get the beautiful photographs of the Haarbergs, whose work we last saw either two years or four days ago, depending on your perspective. When I saw that first photograph on pages 58 and 59, I thought, “Hey! That looks like that husband-and-wife team from last issue.” And I was right.  I didn’t do it intentionally at all. It just worked out that way.