Paleoanthropologist First To Win National Geographic Prize Of $100,000

November 04, 1997

WASHINGTON--A young scientist who is working to unlock the story of early man in southern Africa is to receive the first Research and Exploration Prize of $100,000. The award will be given annually.

Lee R. Berger, 31, an American-born paleoanthropologist based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, will receive the award at a ceremony at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, at National Geographic's headquarters in Washington. The prize is a tax-free, no-strings-attached cash award made to a "single individual who epitomizes the qualities inherent in the stated goal of the Society to 'increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.' " The prize is designed to free up the recipient to pursue, in his own way, work deemed by the Society to be of great significance.

"Lee Berger is a person of great intellect and curiosity and he possesses an especially infectious enthusiasm for his subject," said George Stuart, chairman of the Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "He has tremendous potential to expand our knowledge about critical periods of human evolution."

In August Berger announced the discovery of the oldest known footprints of an anatomically modern human--dated at 117,000 years--found on the shore of a lagoon in South Africa. An emergency grant from the Society's research committee helped preserve the prints. Berger is working to piece together data on the environment that spawned the ancestors of these early humans, who were anatomically like people of today.

Berger believes that southern Africa, rather than east Africa, was the location of the "Garden of Eden"--the cradle of modern humanity. In the course of directing several field research projects in southern Africa, he has discovered numerous fossil specimens and sites rich in evidence of hominids and prehistoric animals. Berger points out that deserts and mountains isolate southern Africa, leaving it ripe for producing unique species of plants and animals' and humans.

The Committee for Research and Exploration also announced its first Chairman's Awards to three scientists as special recognition for their outstanding field work and publications. The three will share a total of $50,000, to be used to further their research interests. The recipients are:

Ann Marie Cyphers, National Autonomous University of Mexico, for her archaeological excavations of the ancient Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo, Veracruz, Mexico.

Cheryl Knott, Harvard University, biological anthropologist studying the reproductive ecology of orangutans in the rain forest of Borneo.

Tim Laman, Harvard University, biologist researching the plants and animals in the rain forest canopy in Borneo.

Berger, recipient of the top prize, grew up in Georgia and moved to South Africa in 1989. He has a bachelor's degree from Georgia Southern University and a Ph.D. in paleoanthropology from the University of the Witwatersrand. He is currently that university's leader of the health sciences faculty's paleoanthropology research group, senior research officer in the university's department of anatomical sciences, and assistant adjunct professor in biological anthropology and anatomy at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Berger directs or codirects several research projects in South Africa, including three hominid excavation sites at Krugersdorp and one at Hoedjiespunt.

He is married to Dr. Jacqueline Scott Berger of Johannesburg; the couple has a daughter, Megan.

National Geographic Society
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