Science Friday shares how Homo naledi was discovered. Deep in a South African cave, in the so-called “dark zone” where no light penetrates, paleoanthropologists have made an extraordinary find: more than 1,500 bones, from at least 15 hominin individuals.
“This spring there was big news because some people found one jawbone, and they thought it was a new species,” says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist on the team. “We have described all at once more fossils than have been found in Southern Africa in 90 years of exploring.”
Hawks and his colleagues describe the new species, Homo naledi, as having a brain roughly the size of an orange, but with humanlike feet, legs, wrists and hands. “It’s this crazy mix of things that we’ve never seen before together—and things that we’ve never seen before.” The details are in the journal eLife.
Though they can’t directly date the fossils, team member Lee Berger says H. naledi probably first appeared on the scene 2.5 to 2.8 million years ago, based on the bones’ morphology. These specimens, though, could be more recent.
As for how the bones wound up in a remote chamber of the Rising Star cave, through a 50-foot crack just seven inches wide at times, Berger says they’ve ruled out nearly every hypothesis except one: that H. naledi dragged their dead into the chamber. If true, it suggests that our ancestors may have had ritual behaviors—and greater cognitive abilities than we tend to give them credit for.
Produced by Christopher Intagliata, Senior Producer
research professor, Wits University
Explorer-in-Residence, The National Geographic Society
Johannesburg, South Africa
University of Wisconsin-Madison
American Museum of Natural History
New York, New York
University of Georgia