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Monday, 26 April 2010

Lee Berger's discovery of Australopithecus sediba at Malapa cave some 45km north-west of Johannesberg, South Africa, is extraordinary. It opens up fresh vistas for speculators and scientists. It could rewrite the history books. But it has received almost no airplay. The newspapers have been silent.

Peter McAllister, a science writer, points to a possible reason for journalists' silence. Berger had been featured on the ABC's Media Watch program, and painted in a negative light.

I remember the program, but not all the details, so McAllister's charge has perhaps less powder than he would normally anticipate. Nevertheless, it is possible to link such mainstream put-downs - that relate to Berger's spruiking of a new pygmy hominid on the islands of Palau - to the silence that has greeted his most recent, disruptive announcement.

There is no doubt that the news is of signal importance, and the circumstances surrounding the discovery are colourful and therefore newsworthy.

Berger's Australopithecus sediba was discovered by his nine-year-old son, Matthew. The boy stumbled upon fragments of skeleton, including a rare collar bone, that had earlier been cast aside by miners searching for lime deposits.

The hominid had long arms - suitable for climbing trees and as long as those of an Ourang-outan - as well as long, strong legs suitable for walking upright. It is thus a transitional creature. Its feet and ankles are to receive close scrutiny.

'Sediba' means 'spring' in the Tutu language. There are currently two examples of the hominid: a young adolescent male and a mature female. Berger says that the site will most probably yield additional examples, so we should reasonably expect further announcements in the near- to mid-term.

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