This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?

Sep 16, 2015


By Jamie Shreeve

A trove of bones hidden deep within a South African cave represents a new species of human ancestor, scientists announced Thursday in the journal eLife. Homo naledi, as they call it, appears very primitive in some respects—it had a tiny brain, for instance, and apelike shoulders for climbing. But in other ways it looks remarkably like modern humans. When did it live? Where does it fit in the human family tree? And how did its bones get into the deepest hidden chamber of the cave—could such a primitive creature have been disposing of its dead intentionally?

This is the story of one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century, and of what it might mean for our understanding of human evolution.

Chance Favors the Slender Caver

Two years ago, a pair of recreational cavers entered a cave called Rising Star, some 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg. Rising Star has been a popular draw for cavers since the 1960s, and its filigree of channels and caverns is well mapped. Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter were hoping to find some less trodden passage.

In the back of their minds was another mission. In the first half of the 20th century, this region of South Africa produced so many fossils of our early ancestors that it later became known as the Cradle of Humankind. Though the heyday of fossil hunting there was long past, the cavers knew that a scientist in Johannesburg was looking for bones. The odds of happening upon something were remote. But you never know.

Sunlight falls through the entrance of Rising Star cave, near Johannesburg. A remote chamber has yielded hundreds of fossil bones—so far. Says anthropologist Marina Elliott, seated, “We have literally just scratched the surface.”

Deep in the cave, Tucker and Hunter worked their way through a constriction called Superman’s Crawl—because most people can fit through only by holding one arm tightly against the body and extending the other above the head, like the Man of Steel in flight. Crossing a large chamber, they climbed a jagged wall of rock called the Dragon’s Back. At the top they found themselves in a pretty little cavity decorated with stalactites. Hunter got out his video camera, and to remove himself from the frame, Tucker eased himself into a fissure in the cave floor. His foot found a finger of rock, then another below it, then—empty space. Dropping down, he found himself in a narrow, vertical chute, in some places less than eight inches wide. He called to Hunter to follow him. Both men have hyper-slender frames, all bone and wiry muscle. Had their torsos been just a little bigger, they would not have fit in the chute, and what is arguably the most astonishing human fossil discovery in half a century—and undoubtedly the most perplexing—would not have occurred.

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9 comments on “This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?

  • @OP – Had their torsos been just a little bigger, they would not have fit in the chute, and what is arguably the most astonishing human fossil discovery in half a century—and undoubtedly the most perplexing—would not have occurred.

    It is indeed outstanding to have so many skeletons of various ages and near complete description of the skeletons of this species.

    It is indicative of a diversity of early hominids in ancient Africa over a very extended period.

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  • The potential for analysis and reconstruction of the species lies in the profuse number of specimens (at least 15) with wonderfully intact, complete skeletons. The dating, as yet undetermined, will place the creature with its Homo-hominid features, accurately on the chronological spectrum of human evolution. If the remains are dated at two to three million years from the present, closer to the time frame for variants of Homo habilus and Australopithecus, then the findings will overturn the theory of gradual human evolution by proving that humanoids evolved in a much more compact rapid time frame than previously thought. If the skeletons are dated within a time range of hundreds of thousands of years -say 100,000 to 500,000- from the present, then we’ll probably be looking at a variant-hybrid species incorporating features of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.

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  • with so many Darwin skeptics proclaiming their non-belief in human evolution due to a lack of “inter-mediate” species linking ape and man this new finding (as well as several others in recent years) makes their claims more and more baseless. A species with anthropoid features and tree climbing appendages? Sounds like an intermediate species to me.

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  • Though not mentioned in the brief account above, the “burial” hypothesis touted elsewhere makes no sense to me, based on the pictures and information in the 2-hour PBS program. There has evidently been no disturbance from the outside since the remains were put there but a bit of mud-producing water seepage. Yet there were no full skeletons–far from it. There were only very-scattered bits from a dozen or so individuals, including a single partial skull, as if the bone-pieces had merely been thrown down in. Hence the idea that their presence together suggests an extremely early evolution of social caring about dead band-members is surely wishful.

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  • New technologies are making a wider study and appreciation possible, while preserving the original material from contamination.
    Homo naledi fossil prints come to London

    They are among the most sensational fossils to be found in Africa in recent years, and visitors to London’s Natural History Museum can see what all the fuss is about on Friday.

    .3D prints of the remains of Homo naledi will be on display at the NHM’s Science Uncovered event.

    They were given to the institution by the Johannesburg discovery team.

    Bones from perhaps 15 of the human-like creatures were recovered from a cave complex not far from the city.

    It is the biggest haul of fossil hominin remains ever identified on the African continent.

    The researchers – led by Lee Berger of Wits University – have scanned the bones to make faithful copies, and these have now been shared with the London museum.

    At Science Uncovered, Dr Louise Humphrey will be explaining their significance and what they could tell us about human origins.

    “I think the effect on the field is transformative,” she told BBC News, “not just because the morphology indicates a new species, but because there are so many unanswered questions.

    “We don’t yet know how old these fossils are. We don’t know yet whether there will be full bodies in this chamber, or nearby chambers.

    “The number of finds from a single fossil locality is unprecedented. There are apparently three small babies and three small children, some older children as well as some adults.”

    NHM visitors will get to see a model of a skull. There are also examples of a hand, a foot, and some jaws.

    They are all small because, even as adults, naledi is diminutive, perhaps standing no taller than about 1.5m (5ft).

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  • @OP – Both men have hyper-slender frames, all bone and wiry muscle. Had their torsos been just a little bigger, they would not have fit in the chute, and what is arguably the most astonishing human fossil discovery in half a century

    Lee Berger and some of the same National Geographic researchers found another new species earlier in the Malapa caves.

    It is a very notable discovery but they do have a bit of a reputation for sensationalism. There is also a load of exaggerated and misleading claims in the popular media.

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  • rationalmind
    Sep 16, 2015 at 11:43 am

    Here in the UK in educated company you would be thought a bit weird if you started saying that the bible contradicted science.

    This bottom level of biblical disclaimer and apologist non-literalist biblical interpretation claim, should not be expected in a scientific publication aimed at educated readers!

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  • More information is becoming available as further work is done on these bones.
    The human ancestor Homo naledi was something of an all-rounder, able to move efficiently on the ground but also adept at climbing in trees.

    Scientists have just published a second batch of papers on the creature whose remains were sensationally found deep inside a South African cave.

    The scholarly articles focus entirely on naledi’s hands and feet.

    Its feet were clearly those of a walker while the hands had curved fingers to grasp and hold on to branches.

    But the hands also show a remarkable level of modernity that is only really evident in late Homo species, such as today’s humans and our now extinct cousins, the Neanderthals.

    The architecture of our bones and muscles enables us to engage in very fine manipulation tasks. We can forcefully pinch our thumb and little finger together, for example – something that is much more difficult for relatively short-thumbed apes.

    Drs Kivell, Harcourt-Smith and colleagues have published their descriptions of the hands and feet in the journal Nature Communications.

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