The ‘missing link’ has been found

A ground-breaking discovery into human history has been found at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in Gauteng. The discovery was made in September 2013, and was announced to the world today (10 September 2015).

 

What was found?

More than 1 550 fossil elements have been discovered in a cave at the Cradle of Humankind.

 

But what is it?

The fossils discovered are from a newly identified ancient human relative which has been named Homo naledi, after the Dinaledi cave system where it was found. There were 15 bodies discovered, including infants, children, adults and the elderly.

This find adds a new member to the human genus, and is incredibly unique, according to Professor Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute and who led the Rising Star expedition that found the fossils.

 

Why are these humans so unique?

What makes this unique are some of the characteristics that the Homo naledi appear to have in common with our human species.

Berger explains: “They would stand at about 1.5m tall. They had tiny brains – slightly larger than an orange. That is as small as the smallest Australopithicenes we have seen. Yet a cranial shape that’s that of a member of our genus.

“From midway down the arm, right through to the wrist and the palm – this species looks like a human. The thumb is utterly unique and long. The hand itself is approximately proportioned like a human, but the phalanges and fingers are hyper curved. So curved that the only creature we have with curvature like that are four- or five-million-year-old primitive members of our species. We have no idea what that means,” explains Berger.

Furthermore, this species appeared to have a ritualised behaviour that was previously thought to be unique to humans.

“What’s important for people to understand is that the remains were found practically alone in this remote chamber in the absence of any other major fossil animals,” says Dr Paul Dirks, from James Cook University in Queensland Australia.

This means that the chamber was not something that was accidentally entered into. After considering many alternatives, the researchers say that the most plausible conclusion is that Homo naledi intentionally disposed of the bodies.

 

How were the bones discovered?

The fossils were discovered during two expeditions, one in November 2013 and the other in March 2014. The initial expedition took place over 21 days with more than 60 cavers and scientists exploring the Dinaledi cave system.

Social media played an important role in the discovery, as a social media alert was sent out by Berger asking for experienced scientists and cavers who could fit through an 18 centimetre wide cave opening.

The first expedition resulted in the largest assemblage of primitive hominin specimens ever discovered in Africa, with a total of 1 550 fossils coming out of the caves. “That is more individual remains than have been discovered in the previous 90 years in South Africa,” reveals Berger.

Berger believes that this is not the end of the findings. “This chamber has not given up all of its secrets. There are potentially hundreds if not thousands of remains of Homo naledi still down there.”

 

Where and when can I see the fossils?

The fossils will be on display at Maropeng for a month.

For more information on the discovery and Maropeng, click here.

 

*Image notes:

The image accompanying the article is from the October issue of National Geographic magazine.

For more information, click here