Two years ago, a couple of cave explorers made an accidental but thrilling discovery in South Africa’s famous Rising Star cave system – a nearly hidden chamber with thousands of untouched bone fragments!
Since many other sites nearby had also yielded fossils, this was an exhilarating find. One that researchers hoped would provide more clues to tracing back human evolution and filling in some gaps.
After months of painstaking work, a team of scientists headed by Dr.Lee Berger announced last week that they had identified a new species of hominins i.e. ancestors to modern humans. Homo Naledi.
Their Place In Human Evolution
Back in 2010, Dr.Berger himself had found another species known as Australopithecus sediba near Malapa, also in the same region of South Africa. Dated to about 2 million years ago, this species is not exactly considered as hominins, but rather an earlier transitional stage in human evolution. Earlier this year, we had written about Lucy, also a hominin ancestor, which seems to be related to Dr.Berger’s older find. Read more here.
Apparently, Homo Naledi had a curious mix of primitive and modern features. They seemed to have an orange-sized brain cavity and odd premolar teeth, which were indicative of older species, but their jawline appeared modern. The shoulders were like apes and fingers were also curved, as if to facilitate climbing trees. Then again, the feet were almost like ours, quite modern – evidence that they had adapted for life on the ground. Overall, they were perhaps only slightly shorter than us today.
While many researchers feel that the fossils could be between 2 and 4 million years old, that is still a huge period of time. So, they are reluctant to fit Homo Naledi into the human evolution chain without more accurate dating of the fossils.
The Background Of The Search
The Rising star caves are a part of a World Heritage site near Johannesburg, South Africa. This area is commonly known as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ because of the astounding number of fossil sites across different eras.
A young team of six women - who were the only ones capable of crawling all the way to the site - retrieved almost 1550 separate pieces in from just one square yard. This is easily one of the largest samples ever found. Dr. Berger coordinated the work of his ‘underground astronauts’ as well as an above-ground research team who identified 15 individuals from the fossils.
What’s also unique about this discovery is that the bones were in such an inaccessible place with no other animal remains! This points to another theory, that the remains were deliberately deposited there by members of their tribe. Given how densely the fragments were packed, it could also indicate a burial ritual of that race. Researchers are eagerly waiting to see what else the caves have to offer them.