Published: September 18, 2015
Human ancestor uncovered in South Africa
The Homo naledi, a species recently discovered in a cave in South Africa, has added many new insights into the history of the human species. Two local spelunkers stumbled upon a hole no more than seven and a half inches wide and found many bones inside.
Lee Berger, Ph.D., an American paleoanthropologist who is currently a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, led the excavation of 1,550 bones from at least 15 different individuals. Berger hired a team of six women to perform the excavation since he could not fit through the narrow opening himself. Berger believes that there are still many more bodies to be found in the cave. Bones from individuals from all ages, ranging from infancy to the elderly, were found in the cave.
Some defining characteristics of the Homo naledi include a brain no larger than the average orange and feet that were very similar to our feet today. It stood at an average of five feet, weighed 100 pounds and its hands were curved, indicating that the Homo naledi was probably well suited for climbing and tool making.
Because of the positioning of the bodies in the cave and the absence of any signs pointing to a natural disaster, scientists have suggested that Homo naledi buried their dead, a practice up until now that was thought to be specific to modern humans, in this cave. While this is the working hypothesis, the fossils have not been dated yet, so their exact position on the evolutionary tree is yet to be determined.
Although the fact that the Homo naledi buried their dead has caused some controversy, Michael Carey, Ph.D. at The University, said, “What used to be a human evolutionary tree with few described branches is now a bush with many branches, and naledi is just one more branch.” Our current understanding of the evolutionary history of modern day humans is constantly evolving and with the recent discovery of Homo naledi, a new look at how our ancestors treated their dead can only be beneficial in the search for our origin. One should not get caught up in previous beliefs regarding the origins of modern humans, because with each new discovery, the scientific community learns something new about our ancestors.
The Reverend Richard Malloy of The University, S.J., Ph.D., points out that, “This Homo naledi grave site lends credence to the ideas that ritual and belief in realities beyond our empirical experience are very deep and old in our human experience.” Scientists do not know everything that occurred in the evolutionary history of humans, so this discovery only aids in forming an informed decision about our past. Upon further examination of these bones, scientists hope to glean more information about this novel species.