The Feet and Hands of Homo Naledi were Similar to those of Modern Humans – Could this be the Evolutionary Link Paleontologists Were Waiting for?
Homo Naledi brings new surprises that could change the history of evolution for modern humans. Is this finally one of the missing links in human evolution that paleontologists have been waiting for?
In September, Ancient Origins reported on an important discovery made in South Africa that may completely change our view of humanity’s ancient ancestors and our evolution: the bones of a new hominid species had been discovered in what appears to be a burial chamber, located in the depths of a cave.
Called Homo Naledi, this finding has been hailed as one of the greatest fossil discoveries in the last 50 years. The remains are also said to be the fossils of the largest hominid ever found in Africa. So far scientists have recovered skeletal remains of very young children, some youth, and one older adult: totaling more than 1,500 fragments belonging to at least 15 individuals of both sexes.
Now, Nature Communications has just published the second part of the studies related to the recovered remains, consisting of two studies focused on the analysis of the bones of Homo Naledi hands and feet. The intention of these studies was to find out if the ancient species enjoyed our ability to walk and use their upper extremities in a fully functional way. The results are surprising.
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Some of the skeletal remains of Homo Naledi recovered in a South African cave. (Photo: Independent)
A Unique Adaptation: Walking and Climbing at the Same Time
Both studies have shown that Homo Naledi enjoyed a unique adaptation that allowed them to walk for long distances as humans can, while also maintaining the habit of climbing and living in trees as well.
If that is not enough, it has also been shown that Homo Naledi were able to perform delicate and accurate work with their hands. William Harcourt-Smith is the lead author of the new study The Foot of Homo Naledi, published just days ago and based on the 107 bones of the feet found in the cave. Jeremy Desilva, co-author of the paper, affirms that this type of hominid:
"…Was a long-distance traveler, with a very arched foot, the big toe would not allow them to pick up objects. But there are few subtle differences in their foot from that of humans today. (...) The foot could be similar to that of Homo erectus. This is the first hominid with proportions similar to ours, with long legs and short arms. At the same time, the brain of Homo Naledi is much smaller than that of Homo erectus and the shoulders and fingers were curved like those of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis.) This is a new combination of features we have not seen before."
In fact, the foot fossils very much resemble ours, those of modern humans, despite the curvature being higher.
The second study, led by paleoanthropologist Tracy Kivell, reveals that the hands of the Homo Naledi have a unique combination of features that have never been seen before in any other hominid as well. The bones of the wrist and thumb show more modern anatomical features, such as those present in Neanderthals and even human hands. This means that a Homo Naledi was perfectly capable of grasping objects tightly with their hands and using stone tools.
The hands of the "Homo Naledi" have very modern and very similar anatomical characteristics to contemporary humans. (Photo: Nature Communications)
In addition, the hand bones-there are almost 150 fossils that have been recovered pertaining to this part of the body- indicate that the hands are more curved than those of other early hominids. These hands are more like those of Lucy, which could also suggest that the Homo Naledi were accustomed to climbing trees.
As stated in the Kivell study:
“Homo Naledi was doubly specialized. The adaptation of the hand of Homo Naledi for tool use, combined with its small brain, has interesting implications for what cognitive needs were really necessary at the moment of manufacturing and using tools. And, depending on the final dating of these fossils, Homo Naledi could have been the creator of some of the ancient stone tools that we have found in South Africa.”
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Waiting for the Date
"The problem is that, despite the best efforts of researchers, due to the inaccessibility of the site (it is a deep pit at the bottom of a cave that is very difficult to access), a dating of the remains has not been possible so far. So, we do not know if the fossils are over two and a half million years old (the age of Australopithecus) or less than one hundred thousand. This date will define if Homo Naledi was an archaic species which lived with the first representatives of our own species or, in fact, a predecessor of our own."
The findings of both investigations suggests that the evolutionary status of Homo Naledi lies precisely in the transition from Australopithecus to humans. However, we must await the necessary dating results to confirm, or not, if we are really facing one of the long-awaited missing links in human evolution.
Possible evolutionary chronologies of Homo Naledi in comparison with Australopithecus and Homo Erectus. (Image: El Periodico)
Featured Image: A Homo Naledi Foot ( a) Dorsal view ( b) Distal view of the cuneiforms and the cuboid in which the reconstruction of the transverse arc is observed ( c) Middle view showing the moderate longitudinal arch. Scale in centimeters. (Photo: Nature Communications)
This article was first published in Spanish at https://www.ancient-origins.es/ and has been translated with permission.
By Mariló T.A.