Fossils have been discovered in a cave, believed to be a burial chamber, in South Africa belonging to an extinct human species not previously discovered.
The discovery of 15 partial skeletons is the largest single discovery of its type in Africa. More than 1,500 pieces of bone were recovered from the cave. They are believed to belong to at least 15 individuals. The remains appear to be infants, juveniles and one very old adult.
The species, which has been named naledi, has been classified in the grouping, or genus, Homo, to which modern humans belong. The discovery of the burial chamber suggests that suggests naledi was capable of ritual behaviour. Ritual behaviour has typically been associated with much later humans within the last 200,000 years.
Professor Lee Berger of South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, who led the discovery, believes they could be among the first of our kind (genus Homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago. The bones are undated at the moment. Because the remains were not encased in rock, Berger’s team has not been able to date them. They could be 3m years old, or far more modern.
“What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of human-like creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa. Only one line eventually survived to give rise to us,” Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum said.
Homo naledi is unlike any primitive human found in Africa. It has a tiny brain – about the size of a gorilla’s and a primitive pelvis and shoulders. But it is put into the same genus as humans because of the more progressive shape of its skull, relatively small teeth, characteristic long legs and modern-looking feet.
Homo naledi had feet like modern humans, said John Hawks, a study team co-author at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It has been suggested that they could have climbed trees like apes, judging their from curved fingers, stout chests, and ape-like shoulders, he said. The team estimates they weighed about 90 to 120 pounds as adults. “It’s telling us that evolutionary history was probably different to what we had imagined,” said Hawks.