Scientists in South Africa have discovered a new species of human, Homo naledi. Its physical attributes are bizarre, its age is unknown, and its burial circumstances are baffling.
The bones were collected from a chamber 100 feet below ground within the Rising Star cave system in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind region, which is known for its human fossils. Some 1,550 specimens of bones and teeth were recovered, belonging to at least 15 different skeletons, but that only represents a fraction of the material at the site. The name H. naledi refers to the cave where the bones were found; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.
The research paper published in the journal eLife on September 10th explains that modern humans, or Homo sapiens, are now the only living species in their genus. But as recently as 20,000 years ago there were other species that belonged to the genus Homo. Together with modern humans, these extinct human species, our immediate ancestors and their close relatives are collectively referred to as ‘hominins’.
H. naledi stood at about 5 feet tall, with a small brain, clever hands, and an ape-like torso that was built for walking upright as well as climbing. This unique blend of traits is what expedition leader Dr. Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand feels classifies it a new species of human.
Scientists don’t quite know where to place H. naledi on the human family tree. So far, researchers haven’t been able to determine the age of the bones. They could be several million years old or tens of thousands of years old. Also curious is whether or not this primitive creature decided to bury their dead together intentionally.
Click here for an in-depth piece by National Geographic delving into the discovery of H. naledi and how this new species changes the human story.