2 years ago, Deep in the Rising Star Cave system in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, a group of amateur cave explorers stumbled across a discovery that is re-writing what we currently know about human evolution: a 2 million-year-old skeleton. A skeleton that represents an extinct ancestor of mankind that was previously unknown, and completely changes what we once knew of our human origins. As far as discoveries go, this one is epic.
Rising Star Expedition
After the initial discovery of the first skeleton, The Rising Star Expedition was planned. The 21-day expedition included a team of 60 scientists and cave explorers and was aimed at recovering the initial skeleton that was discovered. But only 3 days into the expedition, the scientist found that they had discovered “something different and extraordinary,” according to expedition leader, Lee Berger. What the scientist discovered was a chamber 300 feet into the cave system, in total darkness, that contained an estimated 1,500 fossil elements of an unknown origin.
From these fossil elements came 15 individual skeletons of a new species of the genus Homo, known as Homo naledi. Of the genus Homo, there is only one surviving species: Us. As recently as 100,000 years ago there were other species in the Homo genus, but Homo sapiens is the only one that still exists in the collection of what are known as “Hominins.”
At an estimated 5 feet tall and 100 pounds at adulthood, Berger describes Homo naledi as being “similar in size and weight to a small modern human, with human-like hands and feet. Furthermore, while the skull had several unique features, it had a small braincase that was most similar in size to other early hominin species that lived between four million and two million years ago. Homo naledi‘s ribcage, shoulders, and pelvis also more closely resembled those of earlier hominin species than those of modern humans.” It seems as though they were a mix of multiple forms of early humans, and although no one is screaming “missing link” just yet, it is an interesting train of thought.
The REALLY Interesting Part
Aside from this discovery of a new species of hominins, what is really intriguing is the fact that it is the largest collection of a single ancient hominin species ever discovered. In the chamber where the original 1,500 fossil elements were found, Berger explains that “the floor is practically made of bones of these individuals.” There are potentially thousands more fossil elements that are untouched. Keep in mind, the chamber where these bodies were found was in a very hard to reach section of the cave system, 300 feet from the entrance, in complete darkness.
So how did they get there? Berger believes that this is the first known example of a human species deliberately disposing of their dead. Not just disposing of them, but doing so in a place that was protected. This was thought to only be a characteristic of modern humans, but Homo naledi changes that theory. Berger also speculates, “Is it a coincidence that the earliest evidence of controlled fire is only 800 meters away?” referring to the National Heritage Site of Swartkrans. “It’s speculation… But animals don’t go into the dark.”
Berger and his team are continuing to research their findings, and the next step is accurately aging the fossils. Right now, initial estimates are that Homo naledi is at least 2 million years old, maybe as old as 3 million, which would make them the base for our genus.