Described by CNN as a "mysterious species," Homo naledi were burying the dead and carving symbols more than 100,000 years earlier than Neanderthals and modern humans.
The revelations could change the understanding of human evolution, because until now such behaviors only have been associated with larger-brained Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. The findings are detailed in three studies that have been accepted for publication in the journal eLife, and preprints of the papers are available on BioRxiv.
Laid to rest in fetal positions in depressions in the soil:
During the work to identify the cave burials, the scientists also found a number of symbols engraved on the cave walls, which are estimated to be between 241,000 and 335,000 years old, but they want to continue their testing for more precise dating. The symbols include deeply carved hashtag-like cross-hatchings and other geometric shapes. Similar symbols found in other caves were carved by early Homo sapiens 80,000 years ago and Neanderthals 60,000 years ago and were thought to have been used as a way to record and share information.
"These recent findings suggest intentional burials, the use of symbols, and meaning-making activities by Homo naledi. It seems an inevitable conclusion that in combination they indicate that this small-brained species of ancient human relatives was performing complex practices related to death," said Berger, lead authoron two of the studies and coauthor on the third, in a statement. "That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors."
Time to break out my favorite tweet of all time, from game developer David Szymanski: