Every once in a while a new discovery in anthropology is so exciting it fires imaginations far beyond the halls of science. The discovery of Homo naledi is one of those times. Wits University announced the discovery on September 10, 2015 of a new species of human relative, and named it Homo naledi.
- And most remarkable, besides shedding light on the origins and diversity of our genus, Homo naledi also appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously thought limited to humans.
- The story itself, as told on PBS’s NOVA, is enthralling. Details include renowned anthropologist Professor Lee Berger buying a motorcycle for an out-of-work former student, telling him to go find some fossils; said student tapping into the community of cavers to help him; two amateur cavers exploring deep into a fissure and finding a barely accessible chamber littered with bones; a knock on the anthropologist’s door at nine o’clock at night, with the message “you WILL want to let us in”; shrieks and profanity as he views the astounding video from the cave; and a social media job posting for “skinny scientists who are not claustrophobic”.
- What they found is an unprecedented trove of hominin fossils — more than 1,500 well-preserved bones and teeth — representing the largest, most complete set of such remains found to date in Africa. The discovery of the fossils, cached in a barely accessible chamber in a subterranean labyrinth not far from Johannesburg, adds a new branch to the human family tree, a creature dubbed Homo naledi.
“We have a new species of Homo, with all of its interesting characteristics,” says John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin-Madison paleoanthropologist and one of the leaders of a team that painstakingly retrieved the fossils under excruciatingly cramped and difficult conditions. “We now have the biggest discovery in Africa for hominins.”
In addition to identifying an entirely new species in the genus Homo, the collections of fossils, which bear no marks from predators or scavengers, are strong evidence that Homo naledi was deliberately depositing its dead in the cave, according to Hawks, a UW-Madison professor of anthropology.
“We think it is the first instance of deliberate and ritualized secreting of the dead,” says Hawks. “The only plausible scenario is they deliberately put bodies in this place.”
Read more at:
University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Fossil trove adds a new limb to human family tree.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 September 2015. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150910131807.htm