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A Closer Look at The Skull in the Rock

On the last page of The Skull in the Rock, co-author Marc Aronson writes, “You, the person reading these lines, can make amazing discoveries. They are out there, waiting for you.” Though these encouraging words appear as a closing message, they encapsulate the spirit of scientific discovery that is present throughout Aronson and Lee R. Berger’s book. The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins is a winner of the 2014 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Children’s Middle Grades Book category.

The work is unique among children’s science books in that it can boast a practicing scientist as one of its authors. Lee Berger’s contribution as a distinguished paleoanthropologist is clearly palpable throughout the book. Though its title is a reference to one of Berger’s famous fossil specimens—whose skull was discovered partially embedded in a rock—the focus is broadly on Berger’s full career as a paleoanthropologist, and not just on his discovery of the skull.

The Skull in the Rock opens in 2008 in South Africa, with the story of Berger’s nine-year-old son’s discovery of what turned out to be an almost two-million-year-old clavicle of a human ancestor. This initial discovery led to the Bergers and their team finding multiple fossil skeletons of a new ancient species that was eventually named Australopithecus sediba. The book does more than just describe the Bergers’ discovery, however: Aronson and Berger give the reader an up-close look at the events through double-page spreads sprinkled throughout the book about fossil discovery, transporting fossils back to a laboratory, and using X rays to examine them.

From this opening story, the book moves back to Lee Berger’s childhood, pointing to his early interest in conservation and wildlife as the roots of his future career as a paleoanthropologist. It then retells Berger’s first discoveries of human ancestral fossils and his other contributions to paleoanthropology, returning to his discovery of Australopithecus sediba most recently.

This book’s infectious enthusiasm for scientific inquiry and anthropological discovery makes it an excellent candidate for pairing with other activities in the classroom. Learn more about fossils with any of these Science NetLinks lessons: Comparing Species through the Fossil Record, Fossils 1: Fossils and Dinosaurs, Fossils 2: Uncovering the Facts, or Fossils and Geologic Time. Or delve deeper into other human ancestral species with the Primitive Ape-Man and Hominid Diet Science Update podcasts and the Introducing Ardi Collection. Finally, get students into Lee Berger’s frame of mind with the Learn to Think Like An Archaeologist lesson.

The Skull in the Rock provides an excellent in-depth look at the science of paleoanthropology and the careers of paleoanthropologists, breaking down the wall between science in the classroom and science in the field. Young readers will surely come away inspired and ready to go out and explore.

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