Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

The Curiosity Files: 9-year-old boy discovers missing link in human evolution

Last week in my ongoing search for hard data about the benefits of remaining curious, I came across an article in Thrive Global about Matthew Berger, the 9-year-old who discovered a missing link in the story of human evolution while he was out walking with his dog.

Matthew’s father, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, Ph.D, was exploring the Malapa caves in Gauteng, South Africa when 9-year-old Matthew got bored and wandered off with his dog Tau.  At some point in his hike away from the caves, Matthew tripped on a rock. Instead of simply getting up and moving on, he decided to see what had tripped him. It must have been a pretty interesting looking rock, because Matthew picked it up and showed it to his father.

Being a paleoanthropologist on high alert for hominid fossils, his father recognized his son’s rock as a fossilized hominid clavicle (collarbone).  Matthew’s curiosity, and his father’s willingness to entertain it, tripped off ten years of research and exploration in the site. Over the next several years, researchers have found some 135 fossils from at least three different individuals at the site. Enough specimens have been recovered that ultimately researchers were able to determine that the collarbone and the associated fossils belonged to a previously unknown species, Australopithecus sediba.

Artist's rendering of the Australopithecus sediba shows a hominid standing upright, covered in fur, with a stocky body, and a face with broad cheekbones, a low forehead, and quite a broad jaw.

Artist’s rendering of Au. sediba. Commissioned by the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. (© Sculpture Elisabeth Daynes / Photograph S. Entressangle. Via the Paleoanthropology Society’s Special Issue on Australopithecus sediba.)

The 2 million-year-old Au. sediba shares some characteristics with members of the genus Australopithecus, particularly in its skull. Its pelvis, however, is characteristic of members of the genus Homo. And then there’s the matter of the legs, which to paleoanthropologists appear to have a mix of features from both genera. While this complicates the question of where to slot Au. sediba in the human evolutionary tree, it seems fairly clear that Au. sediba is one of the missing bridge species between early humans and their predecessors.

Stephanie Fairyington, who wrote the original article for Thrive Global, and the researchers who study Au. sediba, both seem fairly awe-struck by the power of 9-year-old Matthew’s curiosity. Without it they point out, the Au. sediba fossils might still be hidden near the Malapa caves. What else, they ask, do we miss because we no longer have the curiosity of a 9-year-old child?

As a parent of a curious child myself, I’m less impressed by Matthew’s curiosity, and more in awe of his father’s willingness to entertain it. Reading this story, I couldn’t help but think of all the times I’ve said no. No, you can’t pick up that rock. No, you can’t go back for whatever that is under the bush. Stay on the path. Stay focused. Keep moving. We don’t have time to indulge your curiosity now. No. No. No.

The odds are profoundly against my ever recognizing a fossil even if my daughter did stumble across one in our daily lives, but I can at least try to do a better job of not shutting her curiosity down completely. Not because we have much hope of being the team that discovers the next link in the chain of human evolution, but because if the rest of Fairyington’s article is to be believed, staying curious is linked with greater well-being, increased creativity, a greater capacity to learn and to remember, and reduced rates of depression.

If I could equip my daughter for life with all of that, I’d be a pretty successful parent indeed.

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