10 Sep 2015

New ‘human’ species discovered in South Africa

Scientists announce the discovery of a new human-like species named Homo Naledi, buried deep in a remote cave chamber in South Africa.

Credit: Homo naledi John Hawks Wits University

The discovery of 15 partial skeletons is the largest single find of its type in Africa and researchers claim the new discovery could change ideas about human evolution.

The find was made by a team at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) in 2013, and studies have been published in the journal Elife which suggest the species was also capable of ritual behaviour, previously thought limited to humans.

For example, researchers suggest the species deliberately placed the bodies of its dead in the remote cave.

Experts say the creature has some “has some surprisingly human-like features”. It was named naledi, which means star in the local Sesotho language, after the Rising Star cave in which it was discovered,

These features were enough to place the species in the Homo genus group which modern humans belong to.

Dr William Harcourt-Smith of Lehman College, City University of New York, led a study on the Homo naledi’s feet and said they were “virtually indistinguishable from those of modern humans.”

While naledi may be an early member of the evolutionary group that includes humans, it is not thought to be a direct ancestor of current-day humans.

John Hawks, senior author on a paper describing the new species, said: “Homo naledi had a tiny brain, about the size of an average orange (about 500 cubic centimeters), perched atop a very slender body.”

Credit: Homo naledi John Hawks Wits University

The research shows that naledi stood at around 1.5 metre tall and weighed 45 kilograms.

More than 1,550 numbered fossil elements, which are yet to be dated, were found about 90 metres from the cave entrance and only accessible through a chute so narrow that a “special team of very slender individuals” were needed to access them, Wits University said.

More to come

So far the team has recovered the parts of 15 individuals of the same species. They believe this is only a small fraction of the number of remains in the chamber.

Professor Lee Berger, who led the team, said: “This chamber has not given up all of its secrets. There are potentially hundreds if not thousands of remains of Homo naledi still down there.”

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage.”

Credit: Homo naledi John Hawks Wits University

Professor Berger, who worked with National Geographic on the project, also said researchers had explored many options before suggesting the new species bury their dead.

“We explored every alternative scenario, including mass death, an unknown carnivore, water transport from another location, or accidental death in a death trap, among others.

“In examining every other option, we were left with intentional body disposal by Homo naledi as the most plausible scenario.”

The fossil material was recovered in two expeditions conducted in November 2013 and March 2014, dubbed the Rising Star Expeditions.