Scientists have discovered a new species of hominid in a cave in South Africa. The species has been named Homo naledi, Homo being the human genus and naledi meaning star. It was named this because of its discovery in the Rising Star cave system. In total 1550 individual bones and teeth were found. The bones that were uncovered represent 15 individuals and singles or multiples of almost every bone in the skeleton were found.
What is interesting is where the bones were found. To get to the Dinaledi chamber, researchers had to crawl through tiny corridors less than 10 inches in width. This prompted recruiters for the team to encourage only ‘skinny’ scientists to apply. This raises the question of how or why naledi individuals got into the cave.
H. naledi has some features similar to modern humans including its hands, feet, body size and weight. It also walked upright like we do. It is; however, much more similar to other extinct hominins and primates in its brain size and appearance of ribcage, pelvis and shoulders.
Currently, it is not known how old the fossils are but estimates say they could be around 3 million years old. According to Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand and head of the study, the fact that parts of the anatomy of H. naledi resemble older primates such as Australopithecus while others are more like modern humans suggests H. naledi may have been one of the first Homo species to evolve and would shed light on the origin of our closest ancestors. It is unlikely that we are direct descendants from H. naledi but we share a common ancestor with it.
As with most big scientific discoveries, the finding of H. naledi came with some skepticism. Tim White, of the University of California Berkley, says the bones were that of a primitive Homo erectus and not a new species at all. Berger fired back at White saying: “Could this be the body of homo erectus? Absolutely not. It could not be erectus,” Berger said.
Eric Delson of Lehman College in New York also said that H. naledi is younger than the estimated age of 3 million years saying it is more likely 2 million years old.
What is also a mystery is how so many skeletons passed through the tiny gap and into the cave. While it may be possible that they lived in the cave, the researchers find it much more likely they deposited their dead into it. Another explanation may be that they fell into the cave and couldn’t find a way out.
Research on the skeletons of H. naledi will continue in the coming months and years. Future studies of these specimens will reveal much about the early evolution of the Homo genus. As Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s deputy president said:
“history books will have to be rewritten”