Professor Lee Berger is “pleased to introduce you to a new species of human ancestor”… again. You may remember Professor Berger from our episode, The Skull, as the American paleoanthropologist who solved the murder mystery of little Taung child. Well, he’s changed the ancestral game once again with the announcement of Homo naledi, the newest member of our ever growing family. (Pretty charming, no?)
The bones of Homo naledi were first spotted by spelunkers through a narrow crevice in a cave not far from Johannesburg, South Africa. Professor Berger recruited field workers - fittingly called “underground astronauts” - skinny enough to fit into the cave for the excavation of more than 1,500 bones. 1,500!! And that includes everything from teeth to the inner ear bones of at least 15 distinct individuals. To put it in context: that’s more bones belonging to a single ancestral species in one place than has ever been discovered before.
But the bones aren’t without mystery. Turns out that dating fossils is pretty difficult. (Which you can read more about here.) The skull cavities are small, about the size of an orange, which indicates a species living at least 2.5 million years ago. But Homo naledi’s feet are almost identical to modern humans suggesting the ability to walk upright, which is uncommon for a species so old. These bizarre discrepancies, among others, made it hard for the 60 or so scientists helping Berger to conclusively date the species.
Another mystery is how the bones got into the deep cavern where they were found. Their placement could indicate that some early hominids essentially buried their dead, something previously thought to be reserved for more modern species.
Berger told National Geographic that this discovery is exciting because it points to a more complex picture of human evolution. Perhaps we didn’t evolve in East Africa, as previously thought. Or at least not only in East Africa. Homo naledi, Berger said, could show us that evolution works less like a tree growing from one root and more like a river system, dividing and reconnecting later down the line.
Welcome to the family, Homo naledi!
P.S. No word yet from Berger and team as to whether our ancestors had mad dance skills like these skeletons.