Homo naledi, a new step in evolution?
Slightly late to the party I know, but we can all still shout about the recent incredible discovery of a brand new hominin species, by six women scientists in a South African cave system.
After nearly a month’s work of caving in November 2013, through 36 feet of deadly and precarious tunnels as narrow as 7 inches across in some instances, these amazing scientists uncovered 1550 bone fragments from at least 15 male and female skeletons. Named Homo naledi, it is not completely clear why the bones are there, or their exact age and importance in human prehistory – but it is clear that this is an astounding discovery, that should be shouted the world over.
This is not only an extremely exciting discovery for the entire human existence, it is so great, for me at least, because it was a discovery only women could make. Due to the narrow and tiny caves, men simply could not be small enough to gain access to the skeletons. Along with an extensive above ground team, led by Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, the findings have begun to be understood, nearly 2 years after the first expedition underground.
These are smaller hominins, between 4.5 and 5 feet tall, with feet that suggest an upright gait suitable for walking long distances, but with incredibly strong thumb and forefinger muscles that would make climbing an ease. Is this a species that was suitably adapted for climbing and walking? Something no previous sub-species has been. If so, then H. naledi was perfectly adapted to a shrubby environment with areas of forest and large open spaces. They could also have been the first to hunt and track prey, as they were able to follow prey across different terrains. All this gives clues to when Homo naledi was in existence and potentially why they are not roaming the earth to this day.
However, it is confusing as to why Berger and his team have not started dating the evidence found. Without dates, the bones give no information about hominin evolution, something vexing Carol Ward from the University of Missouri and Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London. John Hawks, recruited by Berger, however is not as concerned as his international colleagues, and believes that not knowing how these skeletons fit into our ancestry is ‘pretty engaging’.
Another reason this new species is so fascinating is where and how the bones were found. They were all deposited in one place in one cave, suggesting cultural and ritualistic communities. And all this with from a creature with a brain no bigger than a gorilla’s. With no sign of damage to the skeletons, no signs of water or any other plant or animal debris in the cave, it has been suggested that this could be a burial ground for the local community of H. naledi. This also gives suggestions that there could be other sites like this for other communities of the species.
The team continue to explore Rising Star cave and have begun searching the area for other sites, so watch this space, who knows what else could be hiding right beneath our feet!