A discovery of several ancient skeletons in a South African cave is being hailed as a new species of human relative and could provide important new clues of mankind’s origin, says a team of researchers from 32 institutions around the world that includes a Texas A&M University anthropologist.
The discovery of Homo naledi, a remarkable new species of human relative, in a cave outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, was announced by the University of Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation on Sept. 10. The finds are described in two papers published in the journal eLife.
Darryl de Ruiter, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M, along with Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand and an explorer-in-residence of National Geographic, and Paul Dirks of James Cook University in Australia, was one of the original finders of the skeletons in 2013 in the cave, located a few miles from Johannesburg. The discovery will also be featured in the October issue of National Geographic magazine and the focus of a PBS-Nova special titled “Dawn of Humanity’ that will air Sept. 16.
de Ruiter says there are at least 15 individual skeletons that appear to have been intentionally placed in the cave in the remote past, ranging in age from infants to elderly adults. It likely represents some form of systematic disposal of the dead, but from there the mystery grows deeper.
“The cave has only one opening that is about 18 inches wide, meaning that it has always been extremely difficult to access,” de Ruiter notes.
“We do not know how they died, nor exactly how old they are. We suspect there are many more skeletons down there – perhaps hundreds — and it appears the cave has different levels where many more skeletons could be.
“Their body size is similar to what we see in small-bodied humans, except the skulls are quite a bit smaller than humans. In addition, although their hands and feet are quite human-like, their trunk, shoulders and hips are quite primitive in size and shape. This unique combination of characteristics is unlike any previously known human relatives, and we have given them the name Homo naledi, which means ‘star’ after the cave, which is known as the Rising Star cave.
de Ruiter says the new species is intriguing because “parts of it are like us, and parts of it are unlike us. It is human in some regards, but in other regards it is decidedly non-human. There is no question that this is a new addition to our family tree.”
The site of the skeletons and the manner in which they were found clearly show that the dead bodies were deliberately placed in the cave soon after death, he notes.
“Neanderthals and their ancestors – which go back about 400,000 years – and humans are the only species we know that have intentionally buried their dead,” de Ruiter adds. “This cave served as a disposal site for these dead bodies, and adds another species to the list of relatives engaging in this most human of behaviors.”
He says the next step is to explore the cave further and to locate and retrieve additional skeletons for examination. “Given the sheer volume of material that awaits excavation, it could take years and years to complete this process,” he adds.
Support for the expedition came from the South African National Research Foundation, Wits University, the National Geographic Society and the Texas A&M Faculty of Liberal Arts Cornerstone Faculty Fellowship.