In South Africa, scientists have unearthed a humanoid species from what appears to be a burial chamber hidden deep inside a system of caves.
They discovered 15 partial skeletons, with evidence leading researchers to believe the hominids had enough intelligence to conduct rituals. This is the single largest discovery of its kind ever in Africa, and scientists claim it will change our ideas about our human ancestors. More on the findings in the journal Elife.
The species, which has been named naledi, has been classified in the grouping, or genus, Homo, to which modern humans belong.
The researchers who made the find have not been able to find out how long ago these creatures lived – but the scientist who led the team, Prof Lee Berger, told BBC News that he believed they could be among the first of our kind (genus Homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago.
Here's the abstract:
Homo naledi is a previously-unknown species of extinct hominin discovered within the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. This species is characterized by body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations but a small endocranial volume similar to australopiths. Cranial morphology of H. naledi is unique, but most similar to early Homo species including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis. While primitive, the dentition is generally small and simple in occlusal morphology. H. naledi has humanlike manipulatory adaptations of the hand and wrist. It also exhibits a humanlike foot and lower limb. These humanlike aspects are contrasted in the postcrania with a more primitive or australopith-like trunk, shoulder, pelvis and proximal femur. Representing at least 15 individuals with most skeletal elements repeated multiple times, this is the largest assemblage of a single species of hominins yet discovered in Africa.
And an overview from ELIFE, the scientific journal in which it was published:
Modern humans, or Homo sapiens, are now the only living species in their genus. But as recently as 100,000 years ago, there were several 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'.
Now Berger et al. report the recent discovery of an extinct species from the genus Homo that was unearthed from deep underground in what has been named the Dinaledi Chamber, in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The species was named Homo naledi; 'naledi' means 'star' in Sotho (also called Sesotho), which is one of the languages spoken in South Africa.
The unearthed fossils were from at least 15 individuals and include multiple examples of most of the bones in the skeleton. Based on this wide range of specimens from a single site, Berger et al. describe Homo naledi as being similar in size and weight to a small modern human, with human-like hands and feet. Furthermore, while the skull had several unique features, it had a small braincase that was most similar in size to other early hominin species that lived between four million and two million years ago. Homo naledi's ribcage, shoulders and pelvis also more closely resembled those of earlier hominin species than those of modern humans.
The Homo naledi fossils are the largest collection of a single species of hominin that has been discovered in Africa so far and, in a related study, Dirks et al. describe the setting and context for these fossils. However, since the age of the fossils remains unclear, one of the next challenges will be to date the remains to provide more information about the early evolution of humans and their close relatives.