Enigmatic Hominin Seemingly Buried Dead and Carved Symbols 100,000 Years Before Modern Humans
A groundbreaking series of papers published yesterday proposes that Homo naledi, an ancient human species, engaged in burial practices and created engravings deep within a cave system in southern Africa approximately 300,000 years ago. If these claims are substantiated, they would revolutionize our existing knowledge about the development of human beliefs, culture, and symbolism. However, the study is yet to be peer reviewed and some uncertainties regarding the available evidence remain.
The Beginning of the Rising Star Revelations
Back in 2013, a team of cavers exploring the Rising Star cave system in South Africa made an astounding discovery. Scattered across the cave floor were around 1,500 fossil bones, which were later identified as belonging to a previously unknown human species, Homo naledi.
Further examination of these skeletons revealed a unique combination of characteristics. While their feet, hands, and wrists exhibited similarities to modern humans and Neanderthals, their upper bodies and brain size were more akin to the archaic pre-human australopithecine species. This blend of human and pre-human traits sparked a debate over their place on the evolutionary tree: were they more closely related to our own species or our ape-like ancestors?
Fueling this debate were questions surrounding the behavior of Homo naledi. The researchers who initially described the discovery suggested that the presence of the remains deep within the cave system indicated intentional placement by other members of the species.
While some skepticism exists regarding this interpretation, with alternative hypotheses suggesting the possibility of remains being washed into the system over time or individuals seeking the cave as a place to die, the lack of compelling alternative evidence lends support to the intentional placement hypothesis.
Now, the series of new papers led by Dr Lee Berger, one of the original finders of Homo naledi at the Rising Star cave system, and backed by National Geographic pushes these claims even further.
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The skeletons of up to 15 different Homo naledi individuals are known from the Rising Star cave system. (© Robert Clark/National Geographic)
Could Rising Star Be a Burial Site?
The researchers now argue that Homo naledi not only intentionally deposited bodies within the cave but also buried some remains in shallow pits. Additionally, they propose that markings on the cave walls indicate engraving activities carried out by these ancient humans.
If confirmed, this discovery would add a layer of complexity and symbolism to the behaviors exhibited by Homo naledi and carry significant implications for our understanding of our own species.
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Excavation photograph showing some of the juvenile ancient hominin remains. (Bolter et al. 2020)
Professor Chris Stringer, a renowned expert in human evolution who was not involved in the study, explains how burials involve complex behaviors:
“If you are granting them the specialized behavior of burials, it is not something one individual could do. There would have to be a group of them going down there, dragging these bodies with them and then burying them. They would have had to take something down there to dig the holes with. Someone is making fire torches and keeping them alive for the time they are down there. It really is complex and planned behavior. Then you come on to the question of could a creature with no language do this, and that is a whole other can of worms to open.”
But whether the hominin remains should actually be interpreted as burials remains debatable.
According to the NHM report, Dr. Silvia Bello, an expert in human behavior evolution, explains the challenges in defining burials:
“If you have a body that is completely buried, when it decomposes the bone collapses in a certain way and in a certain order. So, this could give an indication that the body was buried whole, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you that it was a burial. The researchers call what they have found a “feature”, which I thought was very generic.”
If the burial hypothesis is confirmed, it would be the oldest human burial ever discovered, dating back 300,000 years. This finding would suggest that the ancient hominins possessed a high degree of organization and potentially passed culture from one generation to another.
Image of Homo naledi remains, in what is a possible burial pit in the cave system. (Berger et al., 2023)
More Clues to H. Naledi Behavior Emerge
While non-human animals, such as chimpanzees and whales, exhibit ‘culture’, it is the combination of behaviors exhibited by Homo naledi that makes this discovery particularly significant. And the burial practices are not the only evidence from the Rising Star cave system.
There are also engraved ‘patterns’ on the cave walls. While their exact age cannot be determined currently, the researchers argue that since only Homo naledi remains have been found in the caves, it is likely that these engravings were created by the ancient hominins.
Non-polarized (left) and polarized (right) image of the crosshatched engraving on Panel A, in the Dinaledi Subsystem. (© Berger et al., 2023)
These engravings consist of almost hashtag-like symbols, similar to early art found in other parts of South Africa. This raises the possibility that these engravings were subsequent additions to the cave by later hominins, such as our own species, Homo sapiens.
Additionally, there is apparent evidence of fire within the cave system. Fire would have been necessary for any hominin venturing deep into the caverns. However, determining who created the fire remains a challenging question. Could it have been later humans exploring the caves, leaving their marks on the walls? Or was it exclusively the work of the much earlier Homo naledi? Currently, we lack the means to answer these questions definitively.
Dr. Lee Berger shares his thoughts:
“These recent findings suggest intentional burials, the use of symbols, and meaning-making activities by Homo naledi. It seems an inevitable conclusion that in combination they indicate that this small-brained species of ancient human relatives was performing complex practices related to death.
That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors.”
If all these discoveries are substantiated, they could signify several possibilities. Due to the age of Homo naledi as a species, these complex behaviors might have been present in our last common ancestor millions of years ago. This raises the question of whether other ancient humans like Homo erectus, Homo antecessor, or Homo heidelbergensis also exhibited these behaviors.
Alternatively, Homo naledi may have independently evolved these complex behaviors. However, this then leads to questions about the evolution of these behaviors within our own species.
These claims that Homo naledi buried their dead and engaged in cave engravings challenge our understanding of human evolution. If substantiated, these findings would overturn previous beliefs about the development of human beliefs, culture, and symbolism. The complexity of these behaviors exhibited by a species with a smaller brain raises profound questions about our own evolution and the role of brain size in behavioral complexity. The implications of these discoveries extend beyond Homo naledi, prompting us to reevaluate our understanding of what it means to be distinctly human.
Top image: Dr Lee Berger with hashtag carving in Rising Star cave system. Insert; Possible Homo naledi burial pit. Source: © Berger et al., 2023
By Gary Manners
Berger, Lee R et al. 2023. ‘241,000 to 335,000 Years Old Rock Engravings Made by Homo naledi in the Rising Star Cave system, South Africa.’ BioRxiv. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1101/2023.06.01.543133
Davis, J., 2023 ‘Claims that Homo naledi buried their dead could alter our understanding of human evolution.’ Natural History Museum. Available at: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2023/june/claims-homo-naledi-buried-their-dead-alter-our-understanding-human-evolution.html
Berger, Lee. 2023. ‘He returned to the ‘cave of bones’ to solve the mysteries of human origins’. National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/premium/article/lee-berger-cave-of-bones?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=social::src=facebook::cmp=editorial::add=fb20230605hist-leebergercaveofbones&linkId=218348380&fbclid=IwAR2pI7iYC_ov8yYwlfqb2y9A63UU2fMoOxnF02FzBKWIKPrwZhUudfCn864