New Human Species Discovered in South Africa

Brigit McDannell '18Sports Editor

For many decades, scientists, archeologists and anthropologists thought there were only six human species recorded throughout history. However, a recent discovery in the depths of the limestone tunnels in the Rising Star Caves outside Johannesburg, South Africa, revealed the remains of 15 human-like individuals and more than 1,550 fossil elements incredibly well-preserved and buried in tombs. This find, the single largest discovery in South Africa, provides scientists with ample evidence to conduct research that could further elucidate the evolution of the human species. The species, which has been named “naledi,” has been classified in the genus “Homo,” which modern humans belong to. “Naledi” means star in Sesotho, the local South African language, and refers to the caves in which these new creatures were found.

Paleoanthropologist and Professor of evolution Dr. Lee Burger of the University of Witwatersrand first found an unidentifiable jawbone in the caves in 2013 and soon began to investigate the site with a team of six additional scientists to determine if these remains were of hominin origin. The age of the remains of “Homo naledi” has yet to be conclusively determined as cave sediments have eroded the organic material over time. It is postulated “Homo naledi” is as old as three million years, preceding “Homo habils” and “Homo erectus” in the prehistoric timeline. The remains show that “naledi” could be a bridge species between primates and modern humans.

“Homo naledi” is unlike other primitive humans found in Africa. It has a small brain around the size of a gorilla’s and a primitive pelvis and shoulders, but is classified in the same genus as humans because of the progressive shape of its skull, relatively small-modern teeth, characteristic long legs and arched feet, which indicate it was bipedal, allowing it run, walk and hunt on two legs.

Some scientists believe these early hominins intentionally deposited the bodies of their dead in the remote and cave chamber and referred to the practice as a ritualized treatment of their dead. They define “ritual” as a deliberate and repeated practice, non-related to religion. There was no evidence found of any religious inclinations supporting the idea that “Homo naledi” was capable of ceremonial activity or symbolic thought, an important attribute of human cognitive behavior. Until now, ritualistic behavior of any kind was thought to only be associated with much later humans who lived in the last 200,000 years.

“It’s very, very fascinating,” said Ian Tattersall, an authority on human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “No question there’s at least one new species here,” he added, “but there may be many debates over the ‘homo’ designation, though the species is quite different from anything else we have seen.” Though there is room for discussion on whether “Homo naledi” should be described as truly human, scientists agree the remains should be further studied to gain more insight into this astonishing find.