Scientists have discovered an ancient species that was closely related to humans. The new species, dubbed Homo naledi, could have used tools and buried its dead. Fossils of the ancient human relative were unearthed in a cave called Rising Star near Johannesburg in South Africa. Over 1,550 elements of at least 15 distinct individuals including children, infants, adults, and elderly, were recovered from a chamber near the entrance of the cave.
Homo naledi’s brain was only the size of an orange
Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg said the fossils were right under our nose in “the most explored valley” in Africa. Researchers named the new species Homo naledi in honor of the Rising Star cave where it was unearthed. ‘Star’ translates to “naledi” in South Africa’s Sesotho language. Findings of the study were described in the journal eLife.
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Scientists said Homo naledi was about 5-feet tall and weighed only about 100 pounds. The species had features of humans as well as Australopithecus. Their brain was only about the size of an average orange. John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin at Madison said though the species was primitive, it had some surprisingly human-like features.
Humans are not unique in buying our dead
Researchers explored numerous scenarios for the preservation of fossil fragments, including accidental death in a death trap, an unknown carnivore, or mass death. In the end, they concluded that Homo naledi may have intentionally and carefully buried its dead, a trait that was believed to be unique to humans. The unearthed bones bore no tooth or claw marks to suggest they were leftovers from a death trap or predator’s larder.
Scientists also proposed a theory that the species might have been hiding its dead deep underground to keep off scavengers. Researchers believe this discovery represents only a small part of what the cave might have in store. Berger said there could be hundreds of remains of Homo naledi still down there.