Meet ‘Neo’, the most complete skeleton of Homo naledi ever found

May 10, 2017

By Colin Barras

It’s the cave that keeps on giving. Almost four years ago, researchers recovered 1500 ancient human bones and teeth from a rocky chamber in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system.

The team has now recovered 130 additional hominin bones and teeth from a second chamber in Rising Star. They say the discoveries – and the first official confirmation of the specimens’ age – have the potential to transform our understanding of how and where the first humans evolved.

Researchers investigating humanity’s deep evolutionary roots rarely find even fragments of hominin bones, let alone relatively complete skeletons. Many must have looked on with jealous eyes in 2013 as Lee Berger at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his colleagues pulled hundreds of bones from the Dinaledi chamber in Rising Star.

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11 comments on “Meet ‘Neo’, the most complete skeleton of Homo naledi ever found

  • Look at the wear and tear on those teeth. Artifact or result of extensive grinding of course food stuff? Even the cuspids are squared off or maybe broken off at bottom. Can’t tell from picture.

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  • @OP – link – But it wasn’t just the sheer volume of material that was significant. Berger’s team quickly realised that the bones belonged to a species like none seen before. Its short body had hands and feet like a modern human, a small brain like an early human, and a pelvis and shoulders like those of an ape-like Australopithecus. In 2015 the team named it Homo naledi.

    We have discussed Lee Berger’s earlier finds before:-

    When fossils from several individuals’ skeletons were found in a collapsed cave in Malapa, South Africa, in 2008, their discoverer, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, noted that they helped fill a key gap in the fossil record 2 million to 3 million years ago when some upright-walking australopithecine evolved into the earliest member of our genus, Homo.

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  • @Laurie #1

    Look at the wear and tear on those teeth.

    The teeth were the first thing to get my attention, but for the opposite reason: I thought it was impressive to have that many, given no toothbrushes or dentists back then. But I did notice they were worn almost flat.

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  • Vicki

    Oh yes thats true! So we have someone old enough to have worn down their teeth but on the other hand they have at least most of them still firmly attached on the side of the face that we can see.

    I’d like to hear from a dentist on their analysis of these teeth presented in our photo.

    R. Wrangham wrote a book called Catching Fire in which he explains that in pre-cooking times, when hominems existed on raw meat and vegetable matter that the wear on teeth was much more extreme than anything we see now. Much more time is spent in chewing and digesting raw food than food that is cooked.

    I once asked my Orthodontist to speculate on the whole wisdom tooth situation of present day sapiens. He said that on dental x-rays he sees an assortment of strange configurations having to do with wisdom teeth. Plenty of impacted teeth which he attributed to our jaws being too small to accommodate these big late arrivals. Then he said that some strange cases have no wisdom teeth at all or just weird little stubs that will never amount to anything. This is where we just looked at each other with an expression of fear/horror and then laughed. He speculated that way back in our evo past when diets included large amounts of raw vegetation and meat and that the average adults’ teeth would wear down at just the point that the wisdom teeth erupt and can service that adult through until the end.

    Could the individual who once inhabited the skull above be in their twenties? Is that upper wisdom tooth erupted or not?

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  • But others are reasonably sure that H. naledi is genuinely an early human…

    I’m happy about these discoveries, but I’d just like to say that that skull does not look to me like a human skull. That’s my impression, for what it’s worth. (Worth nothing, I am sure.) It looks like the skull of a modern ape. But then I do not know how evolutionary scientists distinguish between humans and non-human apes. If you cannot be both (a “non human” and a human) then I’d like to know why that is. Species resemble each other more or less. So my assumption is that the more two species resemble each other the more difficult it becomes to establish what criteria to apply when making a determination as to whether to include a given problematic species (such as H. naledi) within the concept sphere human species. After all, these are just words. Sorry if I sound ignorant or if I am using the wrong terminology (“ape”).

    The quote above supports my premise that the process of categorization in this regard remains highly challenging; and agreement is far from unanimous. Nor should it be.

    Teeth look fine to me. And no toothpaste or floss, as Vicki said.

    Wisdom teeth. Rather fascinating comment, Vicki.

    (Dentists love to extract wisdom teeth. Never let them, unless it is medically necessary. My elderly and very healthy mother has all four and is doing just fine.)

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  • Vicki

    Thanks for the link/reminder.

    But where is the wall that divides one species and another or light grey and dark grey, or any two things in nature? You blow up a balloon; same balloon at all stages of its expansion and nothing separates those infinite degrees of forms (sizes) from the balloon itself. Maybe what is essentially One became Many.—Just another typical asinine, ignorant question and just another banal reflection.

    (But Phil, if you’re listening, try not to compare me to Chopra again. Thanks.)

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  • Dan #9
    May 11, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    You blow up a balloon; same balloon at all stages of its expansion and nothing separates those infinite degrees of forms (sizes) from the balloon itself. Maybe what is essentially One became Many.

    You are correct that as gene-pools diversify the range of features is continuous. – until geographical separation or natural selection rubs out the intermediate forms.
    That is why lions and tigers can still cross-breed when brought together, but due to different selection pressure on separate continents, and the extinction of both species in the lands in between Africa and India the evolutionary branches are going their separate ways!

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  • @OP – Researchers investigating humanity’s deep evolutionary roots rarely find even fragments of hominin bones, let alone relatively complete skeletons.

    Fortunately, genetics can provide information, which is not evident from the physical structure of skeletons.

    There has been evidence emerging that genes suspected of being of Denisovan origin confer a metabolism better adapted to life in high altitude environments. This study suggests there may be other sources!

    Nepalese Sherpas have a physiology that uses oxygen more efficiently than those used to the atmosphere at sea level.

    This is the finding of a new study that investigated high-altitude adaptation in mountain populations.

    The research involved taking muscle samples from mountaineers at 5,300m altitude and even putting them on an exercise bike at Mt Everest Base Camp.

    The Sherpas owe this ability to an advantageous genetic mutation that gives them a unique metabolism.

    It has long been a puzzle that Sherpas can cope with the low-oxygen atmosphere present high in the Himalayas far better than those visiting the region.

    Mountaineers trekking to the area can adapt to the low oxygen by increasing the number of red cells in their blood, increasing its oxygen-carrying capacity.

    In contrast, Sherpas actually have thinner blood, with less haemoglobin and a reduced capacity for oxygen (although this does have the advantage that the blood flows more easily and puts less strain on the heart).

    “This shows that it’s not how much oxygen you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts,” concludes Cambridge University’s Prof Andrew Murray, the senior author on the new study.

    “Sherpas are extraordinary performers, especially on the high Himalayan peaks. So, there’s something really unusual about their physiology,” he told the BBC World Service’s Science In Action programme.

    Unravelling what is different involved a substantial scientific expedition to Everest Base Camp where the high-altitude response of 10 mostly European researchers and 15 elite Sherpas could be compared.

    What the biochemical tests on the fresh muscle showed was that the Sherpas’ tissue was able to make much better use of oxygen by limiting the amount of body fat burned and maximising the glucose consumption.

    “Fat is a great fuel, but the problem is that it’s more oxygen hungry than glucose,” Prof Murray explained.

    In other words, by preferentially burning body sugar rather than body fat, the Sherpas can get more calories per unit of oxygen breathed.

    The result impresses Federico Formenti of King’s College, London, whose own trekking study a decade ago, monitoring oxygen consumption through breath sensors, suggested Sherpas can produce 30% more power than lowlanders.

    “This paper provides a cellular mechanism for what we found at the whole body level; that Sherpas use less oxygen to do the same job,” he says.

    James Horscroft agrees the difference in performance is impressive. “It was pretty clear straight away that our tissue experiments were showing different metabolisms for the two groups. In fact, the difference was so astounding we were worried if the tests were working.”

    But back in Cambridge the results were borne out. And a genetic variation altering the way fats are burned was established, too. While all of the Sherpas carried the glucose-favouring variant of the metabolic gene, almost none of the lowland volunteers did.

    Sherpas are a specific population amongst the Nepalese (“the Ferraris of the Himalayans”, Formenti calls them) who migrated to the country 500 years ago from Tibet, which has been occupied by humans for at least 6,000 years. That is plenty of time for a beneficial gene to become embedded, Prof Murray argues.

    “It’s not down to one gene, of course. We see better blood flow through the capillaries; and they appear to have a richer capillary network as well so that the oxygen can be delivered better to the tissues. But this gene would also have given them some advantage.”

    Other recent studies have shown that some genes that help Tibetans survive at high altitude come from the recently discovered extinct human species known as the Denisovans, although there is no evidence yet that the metabolic gene is among them.

    The Sherpa study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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