Meet Our Newly-Discovered Ancient Relative: The Homo Naledi

| by Robert Fowler
An artistic representation of Homo naledi, reconstructed from bone scansAn artistic representation of Homo naledi, reconstructed from bone scans

In the endeavor to chart humanity’s evolutionary history, the most important paleontological discovery to date has been Lucy, the hominid skeleton unearthed in 1974 Ethiopia. Thursday morning, scientists announced a discovery of a new species that could once again rewrite what we know about our heritage: the Homo naledi. 

The remains of Homo naledi were discovered in 2013 by a pair of cavers exploring the depths of Rising Star cave, located 31 miles from Johannesburg, South Africa, according to National Geographic. Historically, South Africa has been one of the most fertile grounds for the remains of human ancestry, earning it the moniker of The Cradle of Life.

University of Witwatersrand Professor Lee Berger led the expedition to uncover the mysterious fossils, and the scientists published their findings on Thursday in the journal "eLife." The chamber housing the remains could only be accessed by a 18-centimeter wide chute, making the process cumbersome and dangerous. Six female cavers were selected for their small frames to carry out the task of retrieving the bones. 

The remains of 15 Homo naledi were retrieved, ranging from children to an elderly adult and showing a wide spectrum of the species’ growth. 

The Homo naledi had tiny, orange-sized brains and shoulders similar to apes but possessed hands that could have used tools and feet that exactly mirror modern days humans’, according to Berger and his team.

The most exciting aspect of this discovery may be the location of the fossils: Their placement in the chamber suggests that they were ritually buried, a practice previously thought unthinkable for such an underdeveloped species.

Berger’s claims about his discovery have been met with some skepticism from the scientific community, The Guardian reports. Some take issue with the suggestion the Homo naledi buried their dead, arguing that their brains were too small for such complex thought.

Anthropologist William Jungers says that until more research is conducted, the Homo naledi “are more curiosities than game-changers for now,”

The age of the bones have yet to be determined. 

"This chamber has not given up all of its secrets,” Berger said. “"There are potentially hundreds if not thousands of remains of H. naledi still down there."

Sources: National Geographic, The Guardian, The Telegraph

Photo Credit: National Geographic