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A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans.

Astonishing new species of ancient human ancestor found in burial chamber

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A major discovery out of South Africa is set to change our whole understanding of ancient human ancestors and evolution claim scientists. The bones of new species of human relative have reportedly been found in a burial chamber in South Africa. Dubbed “ Homo naledi ”, the hominins are believed to have buried their dead—an advanced practice thought to have been limited to modern humans.

This find is being dubbed one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century, and the largest fossil hominin find in Africa announced National Geographic today.

The so-called “Homo naledi” fossilized bones recovered from the Rising Star cave in South Africa.

The so-called “Homo naledi” fossilized bones recovered from the Rising Star cave in South Africa. Credit: Lee R Berger et al./Creative Commons

The fossilized bones were discovered two years ago in a dark, twisting cave some 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Johannesburg. A pair of recreational cavers, Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter found fossils in the “Rising Star” cave by negotiating the nearly-inaccessible, jagged, extremely tight passages and vertical chutes which eventually led them to a dark chamber 130 feet (40 meters) below the surface, in the Dinaledi Chamber. It was this path the team of lightly-built researchers had to squeeze through in order to investigate, leading them to the astonishing realization that what science had previously understood about hominins might be incorrect.

The scientists recovered remains of infants, juveniles, and an old adult—more than 1,500 fragments of bone belonging to at least 15 individuals. Thousands more pieces are still buried in the chamber, reports The Guardian .

The as-yet undated bones are being claimed by the project to reveal a new species of ancient human relative, named Homo Naledi (meaning ‘star’ in a South African language).

Lee Berger, paleoanthropologist who led the work at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg said, “We’ve found a new species that we are placing in the genus Homo, which is really quite remarkable.” According to The Guardian, the creatures possessed a small brain, about the size of an orange. They are said to have been “long-legged,” “pinheaded” and “gangly,” standing at about five feet (152 centimeters) tall, with the females slightly shorter.

The new study , published in science journal eLIFE, reveals Homo naledi had human-like hands and feet, but ribcages that resembled earlier species, making them a blend of modern human and ancient hominin.

What astonishes researchers the most is the realization that this species seems to have purposefully buried their dead in the hidden chamber below the ground. The dead seem to have intentionally and carefully buried within the chamber, through a small, seven-inch (18 centimeter) wide opening, suggesting to researchers the chamber was used to shield the bodies, reports NBC News.

If this is accurate, it may change everything, as it is unprecedented in the archaeological record.

Illustration revealing the nearly impassible tunnels which led to the burial chamber.

Illustration revealing the nearly impassible tunnels which led to the burial chamber. Credit: JASON TREAT, NGM STAFF; NGM MAPS, SOURCE: LEE BERGER, WITS

Berger and colleagues reportedly considered numerous scenarios to explain the location and treatment of the remains, including “mass death, an unknown carnivore, water transport from another location or accidental death in a death trap, among others.

“In examining every other option, we were left with intentional body disposal by Homo naledi as the most plausible scenario.”

The find raises many as-yet unanswered questions. Not all experts on human origins are in agreeance with the new claims, and do not rule out that the bones might well be those of early Homo erectus , a species closely connected to modern humans who lived 1.5 million years ago in southern Africa. 

A model of the face of an adult female Homo erectus.

A model of the face of an adult female Homo erectus. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Further investigation and dating of the fossils will undoubtedly tell us more about the exciting finds.

The more we learn, the more we realize how little we can be certain of when it comes to our ancient origins.

Featured Image: A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. Credit: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

By Liz Leafloor

Comments

Rising star! I wonder why they would name it that? Must be those liberals in South Africa.

This is a fantastic find but we have to keep in mind that these bones are as yet, undated, making it very difficult without speculation, to figure out how and where homo naledi fits into our human evolution. And we have to always keep 'Little foot' in mind, where dating estimates vary by about 2 million years (vary by dating technique used). Other anomalies must also be sorted out still, such as homo naledi’s hand definitely not being a human hand, or the tooth morphology that does not match those of humans or the mental foramen that differs dramatically that of Homo habilis or the flared pelvis for instance. These differences, unless explained, as well as the fact that the bones have not been dated yet, make homo naledi an ape, all things considered.

Also, practically speaking, creatures with a brain sized like a large apple, dragged their dead along a pitch dark space (no evidence of fire found yet) to then drop them down an extremely narrow pipe/chute into another chamber. Could there not have been another entrance for instance? They could have entered via another entrance and got trapped perhaps.

In my opinion, the mere presence in a cave, does not equal burial of the dead. There can be any number of reasons why those creatures were there.

Well said there boet!

Once again, we should not be surprised at all. Mainstream archaeology is currently (mostly) ignoring the research and discoveries of so called indiana jones's who don't even have arcaeology qualifications. As if a degree is the most important criteria to give you an acceptable reputation. It is well known amongst many that the entire field of sciences is currently in a dismal state. Research is being done NOT to advance humanity's understanding, but in order to get the next grant from government. Low quality papers are accepted because of reputations, and not because of the good science behind them. There is extremely strong and clear evidence already found, and being discovered almost on a daily basis, that advanced civilizations have existed on this planet for the last 300 000 years or more, at least. Pyramids that are mind-bogglingly ancient, and larger than the Giza pyramids. This find in SA, where I'm from, is awesome, but I'm not surprised at all, and I don't have a degree in archaeology...

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