New Stash of Mysterious Homo Naledi Bones Shows They Coexisted with Homo Sapiens
A significant amount of ancient human remains has been found in a very important cave site in South Africa. Scientists now suggest that Homo naledi was alive between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, a fact that complicates the narrative of human evolution.
Could Homo Naledi Have Buried their Own Members Just Like Humans Do?
The original discovery of Homo Naledi was made back in 2015, but the remains of at least three individuals (two adults and a child) have been found in a new chamber of the cave system. According to Dr. Hawks one of the adults, possibly a male, has a complete skull and scientists named him "Neo", which means "a gift" in the Sesotho language of southern Africa. The study of his limb bones reveals that he was possibly comfortable with both climbing and walking.
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The so-called “Homo naledi” fossilized bones recovered from the Rising Star cave in South Africa. Credit: Lee R Berger et al. ( CC BY 4.0 )
As BBC News reported recently , the new finds could strengthen the theory that the Homo naledi people positioned their dead in the cave on purpose. Quite an impressive feat for a species that they had three-times smaller brains than us.
Homo naledi are said to have been long-legged, pinheaded and gangly, standing at about five feet (152 centimeters) tall, with the females slightly shorter. According to the new study , Homo naledi had human-like hands and feet, but ribcages that resembled earlier species, making them a blend of modern human and ancient hominin.
Adult male cranium ‘H. naledi’ from Lesedi chamber, Naledi, South Africa ( CC BY 4.0 )
What astonished researchers the most is the realization that this species seems to have purposefully buried their dead in the hidden chamber below the ground accessed through a small, seven-inch (18 centimeter) wide opening, suggesting to researchers the chamber was used to shield the bodies. If this is accurate, as Liz Leafloor reports in a 2015 Ancient Origins article , it may change everything, as it is unprecedented in the archaeological record.
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Was Homo Naledi Younger than We Originally Thought?
In 2015 it was thought the skeletons could be up to 3 million years old. However, the most impressive idea popping up from the new find is the possibility that Homo naledi lived more recently than we originally thought, possibly a mere 235,000 years ago. This would mean the Homo naledi people could have overlapped with early humans, the Homo sapiens.
In a paper published in the journal eLife , Dr. Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Dr. John Hawks from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and their collaborators have recorded details of the new specimens and, importantly, ages for the remains.
Skeletal material from Lesedi chamber in newly published research ( CC BY 4.0 )
The fact that Homo naledi lived during the same period and in the same geographical region of Africa as early forms of Homo sapiens, gives scientists a clear picture of the vast diversity of different existing human forms during the Late Pleistocene. "Here in southern Africa, in this time range, you have the Florisbad skull, which may be an ancestor or close relative of modern humans; you've got the Kabwe skull, which is some kind of archaic human and possibly quite divergent; you've got evidence from modern people's genomes that archaic lineages have been contributing to modern populations and may have existed until quite recently," Dr. Hawks told BBC News . And continues, “You have this very primitive form of Homo naledi that has survived alongside these other species for a million years or more. It is amazing the diversity that we are now seeing that we had missed before.”
“You can’t tell simple stories anymore,” says Lee Berger , a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand who led the research. “This is the gigantic message out of Homo naledi .”
Mysteries Remain About Homo Naledi
Furthermore, Dr. Hawks focused on how Homo naledi kept its own unique characteristics despite coexisting with other human species, "It's hard to say it was geographic isolation because there's no boundary - no barrier. It's the same landscape from here to Tanzania; we're in one continuous savannah, woodland-type habitat,” he tells BBC News . Also, Dr. Hawks believes that Homo naledi appear to have human-sized teeth, possibly because of their diet, which could be similar to those of contemporary humans. Ultimately, Dr. Hawks suggests that Homo naledi had limb proportions just like ours and can’t explain why they wouldn’t use stone tools, "It doesn't look like they're in a different ecological niche. That's weird; it's a problem. This is not a situation where we can point to them and say: 'They co-existed because they're using resources differently'," he told BBC News .
Top 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