Scientists Discover New Human Ancestor ‘Homo Naledi’
The partial skull of a young Homo naledi was found for the first time ever in a cave in South Africa. Naledi, an extinct species of hominin, lies within the Homo family tree but on a different branch to modern humans. Its remains were found around 12 metres beyond the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star cave system.
A complex 2km-long network of passageways, it is the original site of discovery of the first Homo naledi in 2015.
The remains of the most recent find are thought to belong to a child aged between four and six who died almost 250,000 years ago.
The breakthrough was explored by BBC Science Focus magazine.
Professor Lee Berger, project leader and Director of the Centre for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at Wits University, told the publication about the significance of the find.
Archaeology: Researchers have discovered the first ever young Homo naledi
Professor Lee Berger: He first found naledi’s remains in 2015
Mr Berger, an explorer at large for the National Geographic Society, said: “Homo naledi remains one of the most enigmatic ancient human relatives ever discovered.
“It is clearly a primitive species, existing at a time when previously we thought only modern humans were in Africa.
“Its very presence at that time and in this place complexifies our understanding of who did what first concerning the invention of complex stone tool cultures and even ritual practises.”
The researchers have named the skull ‘Leti’, which means ‘the lost one in Setswana, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
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Ancient humans: Homo naledi was much smaller than Homo sapiens
It was eventually reconstructed from 28 skull fragments and six teeth, and joins almost 2,000 other individual fragments belonging to more than 20 Homo naledi individuals unearthed in the Rising Star cave system since its discovery in 2013.
John Hawkins is a biological anthropologist and lead author of a previous study on the fossil skeleton of a male naledi nicknamed ‘Neo’ also found at the Rising Star cave. He said: “This makes this the richest site for fossil hominins on the continent of Africa and makes naledi one of the best-known ancient hominin species ever discovered.”
Leti’s remains were exceedingly difficult to reach: sitting in a claustrophobically tight passage which measures just 15 by 80 centimetres long.
While the skull was found in many fragments, there are no obvious signs of injury.
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Ancient humans: Multiple fragments from the archaic human were found in the cave system
Thrown in? Researchers believe some of the remains may have been transported by other naledi
This has left the researchers unable as of yet to speculate how Leti may have died.
And, there is no evidence that Leti received damage from a carnivore or scavenger; neither is there evidence that the skull was washed into the narrow passage by flowing water.
This makes it likely that other members of its species were involved in transporting it to such a remote location, according to the researchers.
Prof Berged said: “The discovery of a single skull of a child, in such a remote location within the cave system adds mystery as to how these many remains came to be in these remote, dark spaces of the Rising Star Cave system.
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Science Focus: The magazine spoke to lead researcher Professor Lee Berger
“It is just another riddle among many that surround this fascinating extinct human relative.”
The team now plan to continue to explore the cave system more extensively.
They hope that any new discoveries will enable them to shed further light on whether these chambers are, in fact, a burial ground of Homo naledi.
Prof Berger previously explained how he first tackled the Rising Star cave system to the Smithsonian Channel.
Rising Star cave: The passageways are often no more than a body wide in length
He described how he had made some basic forays into the cave but still had a map of “almost 800 cave sites that were all entryways into the underworld” that he had yet to explore.
He had heard rumours that human remains were located in one of the passageways, and so decided to take a look for himself.
He said: “I was speechless, there I saw something I thought I would never see in my entire career, there was a clearly primitive hominid just lying there on the surface in the dirt.”
His team went on to uncover bones from 15 separate skeletons, dating from the time humans first spread across Africa, and have since continued exploring the intricate system.
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