Bones of ancient human relative discovered in South African cave

World Today

South Africa Human AncestorLee Berger, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, holds a reconstruction of the skull of Homo naledi at Magaliesburg, South Africa, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Scientists say they’ve discovered a new member of the human family tree, revealed by a huge trove of bones in a barely accessible, pitch-dark chamber of a cave in South Africa.

The creature shows a surprising mix of human-like and more primitive characteristics — some experts called it “bizarre” and “weird.” The human relative also appeared to bury its dead.

CCTV’s Yolisa Njamela reports:

Remains of new human-like species found in South Africa cave

Scientists have found bones of what looks to be a new human-like species that's thought to be more than 3-million years old deep in a cave in South Africa. CCTV's Yolisa Njamela filed this report.

Fossils of the creature were unearthed in a deep cave near the famed sites of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, treasure troves 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Johannesburg that have yielded pieces of the puzzle of human evolution for decades.

And the discovery presents some key mysteries: How old are the bones? And how did they get into that chamber, reachable only by a complicated pathway that includes squeezing through passages as narrow as about 7 and a half inches (17.8 centimeters)?

The bones were found by a spelunker, and represent at least 15 individuals. The site has yielded some 1,550 specimens since its discovery in 2013.

Human Ancestor

This photo provided by National Geographic from their October 2015 issue shows a composite skeleton of Homo naledi surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil elements recovered from the Rising Star cave in South Africa, photographed at the Evolutionary Studies Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Robert Clark/National Geographic, Lee Berger/University of the Witwatersrand via AP)

Researchers named the creature Homo naledi (nah-LEH-dee). That reflects the “Homo” evolutionary group, which includes modern people and our closest extinct relatives, and the word for “star” in a local language. The find was made in the Rising Star cave system.

The creature, which evidently walked upright, represents a mix of traits. For example, the hands and feet look like Homo, but the shoulders and the small brain recall Homo’s more ape-like ancestors, the researchers said.

Lee Berger, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who led the work, said naledi’s anatomy suggest that it arose at or near the root of the Homo group, which would make the species some 2.5 million to 2.8 million years old. The discovered bones themselves may be younger, said Berger.

At a news conference Thursday in the Cradle of Humankind, a site near the town of Magaliesburg where the discovery was made, bones were arranged in the shape of skeleton in a glass-covered wooden case. Fragments of small skulls, an almost complete jawbone with teeth, and pieces of limbs, fingers and other bones were arrayed around the partial skeleton.

Human Ancestor

This March 2015 photo provided by National Geographic from their October 2015 issue shows a reconstruction of Homo naledi’s face by paleoartist John Gurche at his studio in Trumansburg, N.Y. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic via AP)

“Ladies and gentlemen I am pleased to introduce you to a new species of human ancestor. A new species …he is pretty, he is worth applause isn’t he. A new species within our very genus, a species that we have called Homo Naledi, Naledi meaning star,” Berger told those gathered for the unveiling.

Berger handed a skull reconstruction to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who kissed it, as did other VIPs. Berger beamed throughout the unveiling.

“This chamber really gives us a window of understanding our past, beginning to gain more knowledge about our present moment and also gives us an insight of what our future could look like. For us to understand how this species lived right here in South Africa, right here on the African continent is something that is a great, great step for us. And one could echo what was once said that this could well be a small step for naledi, naledi took a small step into that chamber but for us, as the people of the world, this is a gigantic step to understand who we are,” he said.

The researchers also announced the discovery in the journal eLife. They said they were unable to determine an age for the fossils because of unusual characteristics of the site, but that they are still trying.

South Africa Human Ancestor

A composite skeleton of Homo naledi surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil elements displayed in Magaliesburg, South Africa, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Berger said researchers are not claiming that naledi was a direct ancestor of modern-day people, and experts unconnected to the project said they believed it was not.

Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the discovery, said that without an age, “there’s no way we can judge the evolutionary significance of this find.”

If the bones are about as old as the Homo group, that would argue that naledi is “a snapshot of … the evolutionary experimentation that was going on right around the origin” of Homo, he said. If they are significantly younger, it either shows the naledi retained the primitive body characteristics much longer than any other known creature, or that it re-evolved them, he said.

Eric Delson of Lehman College in New York, who also wasn’t involved with the work, said his guess is that naledi fits within a known group of early Homo creatures from around 2 million year ago.

Besides the age of the bones, another mystery is how they got into the difficult-to-reach area of the cave. The researchers said they suspect the naledi may have repeatedly deposited their dead in the room, but alternatively it may have been a death trap for individuals that found their own way in.

“This stuff is like a Sherlock Holmes mystery,” declared Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the study. Visitors to the cave must have created artificial light, as with a torch, Wood said. The people who did cave drawings in Europe had such technology, but nobody has suspected that mental ability in creatures with such a small brain as naledi, he said.

South Africa Human Ancestor

A composite skeleton of Homo naledi surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil elements displayed in Magaliesburg, South Africa, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The fact the fossils were found in a chamber has led paleoanthropologists to believe that the ancient species also appeared to bury its dead, a trait previously believed to be uniquely human, through a process of deduction.

Potts said a deliberate disposal of dead bodies is a feasible explanation, but he added it’s not clear who did the disposing. Maybe it was some human relative other than naledi, he said.

Virtually no other remains from other species were found in the cave and the bones bore no claw or tooth marks – suggesting they were not the leftovers from a predator’s larder or death trap.

While explaining to Reuters more about Homo naledi, Berger said the species really was like nothing we had ever seen before.

“A tiny little head the size of an orange with very human like size teeth, but also teeth that are shaped like more primitive hominin. The body is unusual, ape like in the shoulders, primitive in the pelvis but the upper limbs and lower limbs are largely human-like, well that is except for the very curved distal phalanges of the fingers which indicate…which create a very odd package, a mosaic hominid, that was clearly a long distance walker but also something that was the very roots of our genus,” he said.

He set aside another theory that they may have been hiding their dead deep underground, simply to keep off scavengers like the long-legged hyena.

Not everybody agreed that the discovery revealed a new species. Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, called that claim questionable. “From what is presented here, (the fossils) belong to a primitive Homo erectus, a species named in the 1800s,” he said in an email.

At the news conference in South Africa, Berger disputed that.

“Could this be the body of homo erectus? Absolutely not. It could not be erectus,” Berger said.

This is not the first time that the study of our relatives, extinct or living, has yielded evidence that humans do not have the monopoly on certain kinds of behavior.

Jane Goodall in 1960 famously observed chimpanzees, our closest living relative, using grass stems for termite “fishing”, the first recorded use of a crude tool by non-humans.

Homo naledi, discovered in the cave in September 2013, had a brain slightly larger than a chimpanzee’s, but its age remains an enigma.

“We can see from their physical morphology, their appearance, at least where their species originates in time. It must go to the base of our genus, the root of our genus, and if so, and if our present understanding is correct, then that must be in excess of 2.5 million years that is the species originates” said Berger.

There were also no fossils with them from other animals that could provide clues.

The surrounding area is a U.N. World Heritage site, named the “Cradle of Humankind” by the South African government because of its rich collection of hominid fossils.

Compiled from AP and Reuters wires


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CCTV Ameica's Asieh Namdar interviewed Steven Churchill, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, about the latest groundbreaking discovery and how it changes our ideas of human development.