A team of international scientists led by Prof Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg has discovered that a small-brained, primitive hominin lived alongside our ancestors about 300,000 years ago. Previously, scientists believed that the Homo naledi had already gone extinct in southern Africa by the time modern humans first appeared.
Homo naledi lived with our ancestors
The latest discovery was published in a series of three papers in the journal eLife. The discovery of Homo naledi fossils raises fresh questions about the human evolution. Surprisingly, the naledi people methodically deposited their dead in the cave, a behavior long believed to be unique to modern humans. Since the two species lived around the same time, it’s possible that many of the behaviors previously attributed to modern humans might have been developed by Homo naledi.
Back in 2013, scientists discovered fossils of about 15 individuals inside the Dinaledi chamber of the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The Dinaledi discovery was published in 2015. Meanwhile, researchers were also exploring another chamber named Lesedi in the same cave system. Lesedi is just a few hundred feet away from Dinaledi.
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Prof Lee Berger and his colleagues initially believed that the fossils were more than two million years old. But dating the new fossils and sediments from the caves revealed that the species was roaming around the southern Africa between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago. It was around the same time when modern humans began to emerge. Researchers said the Home naledi appeared much earlier, about 2-3 million years ago, and survived until recently.
Who discovered ancient tools?
Professor Lee Berger said the dating would force the scientific community to rethink our understanding of the emergence of complex behaviors and new tools such as bead work for adornments. There is plenty of archaeological evidence that many technologies emerged during that period. But there is little fossil evidence to show who made those things.
Now that we know that our ancestors were not alone during the discovery of various tools, it makes us wonder whether Homo sapiens were indeed responsible for the discoveries they are credited for. It is unclear how and when Homo naledi went extinct. Since there is no known “extinction event” to indicate the demise of the species, they could have lived until about 200,000 years ago or even more recently. It’s possible that early modern humans drove them to extinction.
Homo naledi had both modern and primitive characteristics
The Lesedi specimens include fossils of two adults and a child. One of the adults’ skull was almost completely preserved. Scientists said it belonged to a male, and named the individual “Neo,” meaning “gift” in the local language. Analysis showed that Neo was comfortable walking and climbing. Its limb proportions were similar to humans, and its human-sized teeth indicate that the species’ diet was similar to modern humans.
Many body parts and characteristics of Homo naledi are among the most primitive hominids. The species had a flatter and more primitive face than scientists thought. That’s why scientists placed them further back in the “family tree of relatedness to early hominids.”
It is unclear how Homo naledi was able to hold on to its unique characteristics while living alongside other human species, including modern humans that originated in southern Africa. There was no geographic isolation or barrier that prevented them from interacting with other species.