Photo: (a) Palmar (left) and dorsal (right) views of the right hand bones, (b) found in situ in semi-articulation with the palm up and fingers flexed. The palmar surface of the metacarpals (Mc) and dorsal surface of the intermediate phalanges (IP) can be seen. DP, distal phalanx; PP, proximal phalanx. Author: Tracy L. Kivell, Andrew S. Deane, Matthew W. Tocheri, Caley M. Orr, Peter Schmid, John Hawks, Lee R. Berger & Steven E. Churchill. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Last week, scientists announced that Homo naledi, the mysterious new humanlike species is believed to have lived in southern Africa at the same time as the earliest years of Homo sapiens, bringing into question previous findings about fossil record.
Researchers first unveiled more than 1,500 fossils from 15 individuals, both male and female, your and old, in 2015, two years after they were discovered in the Rising Cave Star system in South Africa’s Gauteng province. The site, located just 50 km from Johannesburg, is part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.
In papers published on May 9, 2017 in eLife, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger provided evidence that the bones of H. naledi are as recent as 236,000 years, putting it in the early Middle Stone Age, at the same time and place as H. sapiens in its youngest years.
From the fossil evidence, researchers have deduced that H. naledi maintained a curious mixture of ape and human traits such as a tiny brain and long legs, along with capabilities to walk long distance and make tools. The time frame suggests that the stone-tool record in South Africa from this period is no longer exclusively the provenance of H. sapiens, and that what has been discovered thus far could potentially be attributed to H. naledi.
What’s more, Berger’s team made a second announcement last week: the discovered of a second chamber containing additional H. naledi fossils. Located 300 feet from the first chamber, this second cave included about 130 additional fossils representing two adults and one child.
One of the adult skeletons, a male they have named Neo, is nearly complete, and the skull has many of its face bones well preserved. Scientists are considered Neo comparable in preservation to the Lucy skeleton—the famous 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of Austrolopithecus afarensis from Ethiopia.
The discovery of a second cave adds evidence to the theory that H. naledi maintained a practice of burying their dead—something believed to be an exclusively human trait.
Berger told The Washington Post, “This is a humbling discovery for science. It’s reminding us that the fossil record can hide things…we can never assume that what we have tells the whole story.”
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.