Exciting news of a surprising fossil collection found deep in a cave. Was this a burial site? A hiding place? Even the age is unclear. But it’s fascinating.
A trove of bones hidden deep within a South African cave represents a new species of human ancestor, scientists announced Thursday in the journal eLife. Homo naledi, as they call it, appears very primitive in some respects—it had a tiny brain, for instance, and apelike shoulders for climbing. But in other ways it looks remarkably like modern humans. When did it live? Where does it fit in the human family tree? And how did its bones get into the deepest hidden chamber of the cave—could such a primitive creature have been disposing of its dead intentionally?
This is the story of one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century, and of what it might mean for our understanding of human evolution.
The assemblage of fossils appears to be of all the same species which shares some features with known hominids and differs as well in primitive and derived characteristics. It’s not clear where this new population fits in the human evolutionary line so to call it a “human ancestor” is likely incorrect. We SHARE a common ancestor.
Named the Dinaledi collection, the paper says this is the richest assemblage of fossil hominins (members of the human evolutionary clade) ever discovered in Africa, with a comprehensive representation of skeletal elements from individuals from young to old.
New species of extinct human found in cave may rewrite history – New Scientist (well illustrated)
Homo naledi is a previously-unknown species of extinct hominin discovered within the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. This species is characterized by body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations but a small endocranial volume similar to australopiths. Cranial morphology of H. naledi is unique, but most similar to early Homo species including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis. While primitive, the dentition is generally small and simple in occlusal morphology. H. naledi has humanlike manipulatory adaptations of the hand and wrist. It also exhibits a humanlike foot and lower limb. These humanlike aspects are contrasted in the postcrania with a more primitive or australopith-like trunk, shoulder, pelvis and proximal femur. Representing at least 15 individuals with most skeletal elements repeated multiple times, this is the largest assemblage of a single species of hominins yet discovered in Africa.
It’s assumed that the discussion about this new find is JUST beginning and will continue for a while as the community studies it and come to perhaps different conclusions. One interesting note from the paper is this: “In light of this evidence from complete skeletal samples, we must abandon the expectation that any small fragment of the anatomy can provide singular insight about the evolutionary relationships of fossil hominins.” A warning that we can’t speculate too much from a small piece. The H. naledi material has suggested that basically the entire skeleton is needed to make a clear distinction on what the organism looked like and how it functioned.
Evolution: It just is. Amazing.