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The Skull in the Rock e-book review

Danielle J. Ford reviewed Dr. Lee R. Berger and Marc Aronson‘s nonfiction title The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins (National Geographic) in the November/December 2012 Horn Book Magazine.

The conversational text tells how Berger, a paleontologist, used Google Earth satellite images to discover a group of collapsed caves in the area of South Africa known as the Cradle of Humankind — an area previously rich in hominin fossils. Berger believed the Cradle to have been totally picked over by paleontologists; he had already explored the region himself for seventeen years, finding little. Now armed with new information, Berger, accompanied only by his postdoc assistant Job Kibii, his son Matthew, and his dog, began exploring the cave locations. It was Matthew who literally stumbled upon a fossil jawbone at one of these sites.

Berger’s excavation uncovered nearly an entire skeleton of a previously unknown hominin he named Australopithecus sediba. He found a second partial skeleton nearby. The two skeletons (a juvenile male now known as “Karabo” and an adult female), with a mixture of human and ape features, have given paleontologists a better understanding of the evolutionary steps between “Lucy” (Australopithecus afarensis) and our more immediate ancestor Homo erectus.

Berger’s concept of human evolution as a “braided stream”

In April, National Geographic released an interactive e-book edition of The Skull in the Rock, which adds few bells and whistles to the presentation of this information. What is added is high in value, enriching the content and enhancing the user’s understanding.

Here the “illustrative material” Danielle praises in her review of the print version (including “photographs of Berger; the research site from which the fossils were extracted; the fossils themselves, both in situ in the rocks and later reconstructed in skeletal form; and striking facial reconstructions of these ancient ancestors”) is expanded with additional zoom-able photos and maps. The design is a bit cleaner than the book’s, surrounding the clear photographs and sans-serif text with plenty of white space. A video introduction narrates animated Google Earth views of the Cradle, allowing users to see what Berger saw when he found the caves. Even more interesting is the reconstruction of Karabo’s skull, created with a composite of X-rays and presented with a 360-degree view.

Karabo’s digitally reconstructed skull

Tapping a highlighted word brings up its glossary entry, along with a link to the full glossary index and one to an online dictionary definition. As with many other e-books, users can also highlight or annotate the text as they read.

Those interested in learning more about sediba and the ongoing research on this hominin ancestor should visit, the site maintained by Berger and Aronson to keep Skull in the Rock readers up to date on developments. I hope that the authors and National Geographic will integrate some of these breaking findings into the e-book’s bibliography in future updates.

Available for iPad (requires iOS 5.0 or later); $9.99. Recommended for intermediate users and up.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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