Homo naledi, new human-like species discovered in South Africa

A new human-like specie named Homo "naledi" has been discovered in South Africa

Scientists in South Africa have discovered a new hominin species in a cave some 40 kms west of the city of Johannesburg. Acting on a tip off from some spelunkers two years ago (who saw bones through a crack in a limestone wall), scientists discovered a large dark chamber in which the skeletons of previously unidentified species of early human lineage were buried. The species has been named Homo “naledi”—which means “star” in the local Sesotho language. A team of cavers had to fit through an 18-centimetre wide hole and climb down a metre vertical passage in very dangerous conditions to remove the fossils.

The discovery of the 15 partial skeletons is the largest of its type in Africa. The discovery will, researchers claim, change our ideas about early human ancestors. The announcement of the find was made on Thursday at the “Cradle of Humankind” in Maropeng. An international team of more than 60 scientists was led by Prof. Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is professor of human evolution studies at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. Berger told those gathered at the announcement of the find, that that almost every bone in the body of naledi had been found multiple times. This makes Homo naledi “practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” Prof. Berger said.


The researchers that found the fossils have not been able to say just how long ago these creatures lived. Prof. Berger believes they could be among the first of our kind (genus homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago. Berger said that naledi could be thought of as a “bridge” between more primitive bipedal primates and humans. Berger said that they went in with the idea that they would recover one fossil. “That turned into multiple fossils. That turned into the discovery of multiple skeletons and multiple individuals,” he said.

“And so by the end of that remarkable 21-day experience, we had discovered the largest assemblage of fossil humans ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa. That was an extraordinary experience.”

Prof. Chris Stinger of the Natural History Museum said that the discovery was very important because it suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of human-like creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa. “Only one line survived to give rise to us,” Stinger said. Homo naledi is a bit smaller and a lot older than we are, with curved fingers and a small skull, but in some ways the species is also strikingly similar to humankind.

Up until now our knowledge of early humans was based on partial skeletons and the occasional skull. The haul of 15 skeletons, which includes both male and female of varying ages, from infants to elderly, is unprecedented in Africa and will shed more light on how the first humans evolved. The discovery suggests some other fascinating things. An intriguing question, for example, is how the remains got to where they were discovered. It seems as if these early hominins intentionally buried the bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber. This kind of behaviour was previously considered to be the conduct of modern humans (homo sapiens) only. Some of the scientists suggests that the hominins could have had a “ritualized practice” when burying their dead. By “ritual” they said they mean a deliberate and repeated practice, not necessarily a kind of religious rite.

There are also other striking similarities between naledi and us. Prof. John Hawks explained some of them. “The foot which was found complete in articulation in the deposit, the other foot evidence we have from multiple individuals, shows a very human like foot anatomy. A foot that is very difficult to distinguish in any ways from our own. It’s very clear that the legs and feet of Homo naledi were made for a long distance and effective walking.”

At the announcement of the discovery Prof. Berger said, “It gives me goose bumps, it’s so inspiring, and I feel really proud. It means a lot to every human being around the world.” Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersand, Prof. Adam Habib, who was present at the announcement, said that the discovery would have “a global momentous impact.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 years 8 months ago
“The foot which was found complete in articulation in the deposit, the other foot evidence we have from multiple individuals, shows a very human like foot anatomy.
Hey, maybe they are human. After all Neanderthals were human and anyone from outside of Africa probably has Neanderthal DNA. There are other human variants discovered in Asia and Australia. If we had found bones of pygmies, Aleuts and Tutsi, without knowing that they are human, we might think they were different species.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

An official wedding photo of Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, center, in Windsor Castle, Windsor, England. Others in photo from left, back row, Jasper Dyer, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles, Doria Ragland, Prince William; center row, Brian Mulroney, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte, Prince George, Rylan Litt, John Mulroney; front row, Ivy Mulroney, Florence van Cutsem, Zalie Warren, Remi Litt. (Alexi Lubomirski/Kensington Palace via AP)
A poll found that 66 percent of the British public declared they were not interested in the Windsor wedding.
David StewartMay 23, 2018
God simply is a triad of love: a going out in love, a return in love and thus, ever more, love itself.
Terrance KleinMay 23, 2018
The leaders sent a letter to President Donald Trump, administration officials and members of Congress.
Altar servers lead a Palm Sunday procession March 25 in Youtong, in China's Hebei province. (CNS photo/Damir Sagolj, Reuters)
The pope appeared to be alluding to the fact that since February there has been a crackdown by the Chinese authorities on religion in the mainland.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 23, 2018