A 9-Year-Old Boy Discovered the Missing Link in Human History By Slowing Down and Staying Curious

Science shows that the benefits of curiosity include increased creativity, subjective well-being and learning.

Photo credit: Heather Walker/Getty Images
Photo credit: Heather Walker/Getty Images

Curiosity, the engine of human enlightenment, contains innumerable rewards that benefit us both individually and collectively as a species.

Take 18-year-old Matthew Berger, the son of paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, Ph.D.,  as a prime example. When he was 9 years old, he made an astonishing discovery. Traipsing through an area in Gauteng, South Africa where his father was exploring caves full of calcified fossils, he stumbled over a hard mass. Instead of carrying on after his momentary spill, he slackened his pace and returned to the item that sent him flying. That fleeting decision led to a discovery detailed in Paleoanthropology, confirming that Australopithecus sediba, a 2-million-year-old species, is indeed closely linked to the genus Homo, and bridges the gap between early humans and their predecessors.

The academic research paper takes a poetic turn — unusual in academic writing! — when the authors marvel at the serendipity of Berger’s finding: “[He] happened to stop and examine the rock he tripped over while following his dog Tau away from the Malapa pit. His curiosity, and his father’s identification of the fossil as a hominin clavicle, set off a chain of events that has led us to this effort,” the researchers write with awe.

“Imagine for a moment that Matthew stumbled over the rock and continued following his dog without noticing the fossil,” they ask us to wonder. “Perhaps Lee would have continued up the hill, away from Malapa, to search for more caves. If those events had occurred instead, our science would not know about Au. sediba, but those fossils would still be there, still encased in calcified clastic sediments, still waiting to be discovered.”

Nothing but unadulterated wonder led Matthew to bend down and carry off what his father later identified as a collarbone. His curiosity literally moved us a step further in our understanding of human evolution.

Several studies demonstrate the health benefits of maintaining and fostering our inquisitiveness, especially the kind that lives in the minds of 9-year-old children who’ve not yet lived long enough to become cynical or apathetic. A 2014 study found that curious people report greater subjective well-being, which is linked to lower levels of depression. Other research finds that curiosity powers our memory and capacity to learn. And a study published last month in Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes found that curiosity fuels creativity by helping us build upon what we’ve already learned in new and innovative ways. These are all good reasons to seek out novel experiences — new people, new music, new books, new food, new places — to light up our imaginations and make new discoveries about ourselves and the world around us.

As the final line in the researchers’ beautifully rendered paper puts it: “The fortuitous discovery of the Malapa fossils and other similarly fortuitous recent finds…should be reminders to us all that there is still so much to discover….”

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