So what do you think?” said Lee Berger. He had just opened the lids of two big wooden boxes, each containing the carefully laid out fossilized bones of a humanlike skeleton from Malapa, South Africa. These two individuals, who had drawn their last breath two million years ago, had created quite a stir. Most fossils are “isolated” finds—a jawbone here, a foot bone there. Scientists then have to figure out whether the pieces belong to the same individual. Think of walking down the highway and finding parts of cars—a broken fender here, part of a transmission there. Do they belong to the same model, or even make, of car? Or might they not have come from a car at all but from a pickup?
In contrast, the skeletons from Malapa, though not complete, are intact enough to reduce the possibility of random commingling. Like “Lucy” (unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974) and the “Turkana Boy” (found in Kenya in 1984), they have so much more to say than individual fossils. But they had made the headlines not because they are complete and so well preserved but because Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, had suggested that the individuals were part of a population that was directly ancestral to our own genus, Homo.