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1,500 Clues to Human Evolution

Thursday, September 24, 2015 - 11:50 AM

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!

Check out this PBS/NOVA video about the discovery here. Or listen to Lee Berger discuss his research here.

P.S. No word yet from Berger and team as to whether our ancestors had mad dance skills like these skeletons.



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Comments [14]

Lauren Fisco from Scottsdale,AZ

Great article! Thank you!

Dec. 23 2017 06:29 PM
Dennis from USA

Wow, it's so amazing that we are still discovering the truth about our evolution. Sometimes I feel like the guys working at Geek Squad - are more evolved than I am. It's amazing how far we have come from caves and fires to iPads and supercomputers.

Dec. 07 2016 09:00 PM
Anthony Gordon from Corvallis Oregon

How wonderfuyl to hear this story as I am in my studio, sculpting hominids! Presently working on a robustus character (can I attach photo?), but I am very familiar with the old story of the Taung child and the leopard (CK Brain), and with Wits, as we lived there, and I worked in Entomology there, while my husband worked at the Transvaal Museum. But I hadn't heard the recent eagle prey theory, which makes plenty of sense. Yow, so fun to hear this while I am creating my 'version' of our ancestors!

Jul. 17 2016 02:50 PM
Letty from Columbia , MD

Thank you for enlighten me with your very smart and absolutely great programs and research. I plan my day to make sure I don't miss your program.


Jul. 17 2016 01:06 PM

Very interesting article. thanks Julie @ Citroen Financement

Dec. 10 2015 11:01 AM

To put it in context: that’s more bones belonging to a single ancestral species in one place than has ever been discovered before.
Laura from Direct Assurance

Dec. 01 2015 10:24 AM
Jim Bertolino from Springfield, IL

Watched a Cooper's hawk attack a squirrel. the hawk dropped the squirrel shortly after grabbing it from the pear tree. The squirrel went no where, because the hawk had picked the squirrel up by it's eyes and blinded it immediately. Then the hawk came back and finished the squirrel off quickly before a cat or something else had a chance to do so.

Nov. 05 2015 02:50 PM
Russell Roesner from San Francisco

I think there is still much more than meets the eye and it will take up to a decade or more to really escavate the entire site. If you look at the pile of bones on the table discovered thus far, Berger said there were still many more. Remember, they just picked up the bones on the surface and there are probably many more buried deeper in the ground. What I don't understand is that if they all ended up there around the same time, say over several generations probably of the same family, and then never touched again for millions of years, why aren't they 100% complete skeletons? Also, why are they all spread around like one took a big bag of bones and scattered them all over the floor of the cave if no animals and geologic activity happened since the bodies arrived? I wish there was a forum where we could have these questions answered!

Oct. 16 2015 05:49 PM

There are so many reasons why those bones could be together like that. News articles I have read said the bones were randomly scattered, not placed perfectly. As another commenter said, they could have slept in there to stay warm, they could have lived nearby or were travelling through, and dumped them there. They could have been dumped by others after a battle or even by their own after one. The list could go on and on really. I have yet to hear any evidence of ritualistic style of burial.

Oct. 07 2015 11:25 AM
Misanthropologist from NYC

In your summary blurb on the first page you say, "From the man who brought us Taung Child". True Lee Berger may have brought *you* the "episode" about the Taung child. He also recently analyzed this famous fossil. But the man who brought all of us the Taung Child is respectively, Raymond Dart.

Sep. 26 2015 08:34 PM
Peter Szymkowicz from Shoreham, Vermont

Professor Berger may have solved the Taung child mystery, but I think he is wrong about Home naledi apparent "deliberate burials". These small relatively hairless hominins could not endure winter cold without clothes or mastery of fire, so they crawled into deep crevices and slept through the inclement season. The very old and very young are most susceptible to dying during hibernation. The bone deposits Dr. Bergers team recovered reflect this pattern.
Dr. Berger declared the bone depository a sign of ritual burial, when natural attrition of individuals hibernating in the crevices above the depository then descending by gravity into the chamber below could explain the fossil evidence. The apparent murder of the Taung child was determined by Dr. Berger to rightly be the result of natural predation by a raptor. The irony is he may be making the same emotional interpretation of a fossil presentation as the person who determined the holes in Taung child's head were evidence of species murder.

Sep. 26 2015 05:22 PM

NWO propaganda.

Sep. 26 2015 02:42 PM
Alex from Miami

I just tuned in to my local NPR station WLRN, and caught your show about evolution. I can't believe how awesome it is. This is truly one best radio shows i've ever listened to. Congratulations.

Sep. 26 2015 12:41 PM

Great article! Check out my articles on:

Sep. 25 2015 07:37 AM

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