Unrelenting search will in no doubt produce an astonishing discovery. A small cave nestled in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa has become the backdrop for one of the most compelling stories in the world – the discovery of a new ancient human relative, Homo naledi. Reported by allafrica.com
Unquenchable taste for new has led to the stunning discovery made in September 2013 by research teams from the University of the Witwatersrand and has been announced to the world at the Maropeng Visitors Centre today.
The source reported that Homo naledi, has been named after the Dinaledi cave system in which it was found. “Naledi” means “star” in Setswana. The fossils of this newest member of our genus are incredibly unique for a number of reasons, says Professor Lee Berger, who led the Rising Star expedition into the cave system to recover fossils from the site.
“They would stand at about 1.5m tall. They had tiny brains – slightly larger than an orange. That is as small as the smallest Australopithicenes we have seen. Yet a cranial shape that’s that of a member of our genus.
“From midway down the arm, right through to the wrist and the palm – this species looks like a human. The thumb is utterly unique and long. The hand itself is approximately proportioned like a human, but the phalanges and fingers are hyper curved. So curved that the only creature we have with curvature like that are four- or five-million-year-old primitive members of our species. We have no idea what that means,” says Berger.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the discovery was the fact that the the remains of Homo naledi appeared to have been deliberately disposed of inside the remote chamber over a period of time in a ritualistic manner. “That’s something that previously, we thought was confined to only modern human behaviour,” Berger adds.
“We have males and females, we have near-foetal age individuals, we have infants, children, teens, tweens and the extreme elderly,” says Berger.
“We eliminated that this is some sort of mass death event. We can tell that they came in over time. We know that they were not washed into this chamber. We know that this chamber has never been opened directly to the surface. All sediments accumulate from within this chamber itself.
“We know that no predator was involved in this. No marks on any of the bones. They had not been dragged into this remote, deep location. They sit in this deep chamber that took us 45 minutes to reach with modern equipment. And we have come to this inevitable conclusion that this was a deliberate body disposal situation.
“What is remarkable about that – this is the first time in all of history that human beings have encountered a non-human species that deliberately disposes of its dead,” adds Berger.
“This is a unique moment in history. Where that goes and studies that are undertaken beyond this, some may go beyond the realm of science, but they may actually go on to contemplate what makes us human now,” says Berger.
The sheer number of fossils in the cave was also unprecedented. By the end of the 21-day expedition, the team recovered the largest assemblage of primitive hominin specimens ever discovered on the continent of Africa.
At the launch, scientists revealed their findings on 1 550 individual hominin remains – in more than 60 papers released online.
“That is more individual remains than have been discovered in the previous 90 years in South Africa,” says Berger.
The historic fossils will be on display at Maropeng for a month to allow as many people as possible to get a chance to see the remarkable find.
History, however, has it that the world heritage site, which includes the famous Sterkfontein caves, has boasted several discoveries that illuminate the evolution of humans.
Here are three of the most significant discoveries made at the Cradle of Humankind:
First discovered was Mrs Ples; The most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus was found in the Sterkfontein caves in 1947 by palaeontologists Robert Broom and John T Robinson.
The nickname came from one of Broom’s co-workers from the scientific designation initially given to the skull – Plesianthropus transvaalensis (near-man from the Transvaal).
Mrs Ples was voted number 95 out of 100 great South Africans, in the SABC’s Great South Africans television series more than 10 years ago.
In 1994 another a discovery tagged Little Foot was made. As Professor Ron Clarke was working in a workroom at Sterkfontein, sifting through animal bones he came across four foot bones which he realised belonged to an Australopithecus.
In 1997 he discovered more bones from the same fossil, in a box of monkey fossils.
According to the Cradle of Humankind’s Maropeng visitor centre website, he gave his technical assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe a cast of the broken shin bone, and asked them to search for the larger fossil that the pieces came from.
“Searching with only hand-held lamps, the two men astonishingly found the matching bone after just two days. It was embedded in breccia, deep inside the Silberberg Grotto.”
The fossil is practically a complete specimen of an Australopithecus.
According to the Cradle of Humankind’s Maropeng visitor centre, Little Foot fell into the cave more than three million years ago.
The Taung Child was the third discovery. Despite being 300kms away from the Sterkfontein caves, the site where the skull of an Australopithecus africanus was found was included in the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site listing.
According to the Maropeng site, the skull was discovered by chance in 1945 when a quarry worker at a mine at Taung delivered a box of rocks to Professor Raymond Dart at Wits.
He nicknamed it the Taung child.
Some estimates put the age of the child at 4, while others put the age at 6.
The fossil itself is two million years old
And now Homo naledi is the latest discovered specie