09/11/2015

Meet Homo Naledi, Another Long-Lost Relative

29:53 minutes

A composite skeleton of H. naledi is surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil elements recovered from the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star cave in South Africa. The expedition team was led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand. The find was announced by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation and published in the journal eLife.  Photo by Robert Clark/National Geographic; Source: Lee Berger, Wits, photographed at Evolutionary Studies Institute
A composite skeleton of H. naledi is surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil elements recovered from the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star cave in South Africa. The expedition team was led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand. The find was announced by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation and published in the journal eLife.
Photo by Robert Clark/National Geographic; Source: Lee Berger, Wits, photographed at Evolutionary Studies Institute

Deep in a South African cave, in the so-called “dark zone” where no light penetrates, paleoanthropologists have made an extraordinary find: more than 1,500 bones, from at least 15 hominin individuals.

“This spring there was big news because some people found one jawbone, and they thought it was a new species,” says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist on the team. “We have described all at once more fossils than have been found in Southern Africa in 90 years of exploring.”

Hawks and his colleagues describe the new species, Homo naledi, as having a brain roughly the size of an orange, but with humanlike feet, legs, wrists and hands. “It’s this crazy mix of things that we’ve never seen before together—and things that we’ve never seen before.” The details are in the journal eLife.

Though they can’t directly date the fossils, team member Lee Berger says H. naledi probably first appeared on the scene 2.5 to 2.8 million years ago, based on the bones’ morphology. These specimens, though, could be more recent.

As for how the bones wound up in a remote chamber of the Rising Star cave, through a 50-foot crack just seven inches wide at times, Berger says they’ve ruled out nearly every hypothesis except one: that H. naledi dragged their dead into the chamber. If true, it suggests that our ancestors may have had ritual behaviors—and greater cognitive abilities than we tend to give them credit for.

Segment Guests

Lee Berger

Lee Berger is a research professor at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa, and an explorer-in-residence with the National Geographic Society.

John Hawks

John Hawks is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ian Tattersall

Ian Tattersall is curator emeritus of the division of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, New York.

Hannah Morris

Hannah Morris is an archaeologist at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Meet the Producer

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata is Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.