Publishing COVID, and a new hominid

Meet our featured guests this week: palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger, and journal editor Theo Bloom...
13 October 2020

Interview with 

Lee Berger, University of the Witwatersrand; Theo Bloom, BMJ


A cave.


Chris Smith was joined by two featured guests: Lee Berger, one of the world’s leading palaeoanthropologists from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; the executive editor of the British Medical Journal Theo Bloom...

Chris - Lee, I think it's actually this year, 13 years almost to the day since we first met in Johannesburg. 13, unlucky for some but definitely not for you: I gather that you've discovered not one, not two, not three, but now four new species of ancient human ancestor?

Lee - It's only three new species so far! We'll work on that though with these new discoveries... I'm in the middle of a discovery right now. COVID kind of pushed us into a strange space. I had to figure out something to do when we could get back once our lockdown levels and COVID actually lowered here in South Africa; and I'd already dispersed my laboratories. And there was this site that we had discovered early on in the exploration activities back in 2013; and it was a difficult site, it was going to be a site that was hard to work, it was going to be a site that had every reason - it was dangerous - that I didn't do it. And I decided to take a chance on it. Day one, we hit an extraordinary discovery that we're in the middle of right now. And so this is really the third big discovery that we've had. It's full of hominids, and we're very fortunate to be able to work under these conditions.

Chris - So this is a cave site. Is this where Homo naledi - the smaller ancestors that were burying their dead - came from? Or is this a different site?

Lee - This site's 200 meters away from where we discovered Homo naledi. It's a different cave system; it was right in front of us. It's an entirely different kind of creature from homo naledi: it's a big toothed hominid. It's extraordinary.

Chris - And how old is this?

Lee - I have no idea. This whole discovery is three and a half weeks old.

Chris - Well you heard about it here on The Naked Scientists first! Theo, over to you for a second. What has it been like running a medical journal during COVID? We've heard from Lee what it's like to try and do field work and actually make extraordinary discoveries and leaps forward. What's it been like at the BMJ?

Theo - Busy is the one word that comes to mind. I mean, we probably... most medical journals have seen a ten to a hundred fold increase in submissions of papers, with people very anxious to get out their latest findings about COVID, and we've had to scale up to handle those. And of course we've been trying to get results out very quickly if they're important; the public needs to know as soon as possible. So we're working around the clock. And a lot of my colleagues are working at home with small children and nevertheless trying to do more hours than they ever did before. It's a busy time.

Chris - Has it been a mixed bag in terms of the quality of what you've received? Have you received some stuff that you think “my goodness, that's amazing,” and have you also received some stuff that makes you go, “my goodness, I can't believe someone actually sent that to a journal, did their toddler write this?”

Theo - Yes, we pretty much always get a range of quality. I think what's happening now though is that everyone thinks every single finding about COVID is really, really important. And they want to get it out as fast as possible, maybe when it's not quite ready.


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