Homo Naledi Skull

Homo Naledi Skull

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Homo naledi (date unknown)

Figure 26.1Skull and mandible of type specimen DH-1 by Lee Roger Berger research team is licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0.


Rising Star cave system, South Africa


Cavers Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter and investigated by Paul Dirks and Lee Berger and their associates

Figure 26.2 Comparison among H. naledi, H. habilis, “African H. erectus”, and H. floresiensis. By Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, United Kingdom – Stringer, Chris (10september 2015). “The many mysteries of Homo naledi.” eLife 4: e10627. DOI:10.7554/eLife.10627. PMC: 4559885. ISSN 2050-084X. Licensed under CC-BY 4.0.


This newest member of our genus has once again confounded the evolutionary history of the Homo lineage. The most exciting aspect is the nature of the remains suggests that they were intentionally deposited in the deep cavern where they were discovered. H. heidelbergensis was heretofore the earliest species thought to have practiced intentional body disposal. Attempts at dating the remains have not been successful. However, Thackeray (2015) has estimated that the species may date to 2.0 ± 0.5 mya, based on comparisons of date and anatomical characteristics among H. naledi, H. habilis, H. rudolfensis, and H. erectus (see Figure 26.2 and Chapter 27 for the erectus grade).

What makes a human?

What distinguishes humans, early or modern, from other hominins?

The exact definition has, like everything else in this field, changed over time. In the 18 th century, Carl Linnaeus simply said “Know thyself” – i.e. to be part of the genus Homo is to be recognized as human. That idea was challenged towards the end of the 19 th century, as fossils from Neanderthals and Homo erectus were discovered. These showed that humans were not a nuclear family of living H. sapiens but had several extinct relatives.

Since then, as more fossils have been discovered, the qualifications to join the club have changed, expanding and contracting. At one point the hominins now known as Australopithecus went under the name of Homo transvaalensis, while Homo erectus was once known as Pithecanthropus. Homo habilis, the earliest generally accepted member of our genus was added in the 1960s, partly because of their association with stone tools. However, a significant number of scientists now argue that habilis is not advanced enough to be Homo. Suggested features for identifying early humans include the shape of specific features in the jaw, teeth and skull, but it is clear that there is as much diversity of opinion among paleoanthropologists as there is in the fossils themselves. The markers for members of the immediate human family and the markers of new species are subject to debate.

Source: Smithsonian Institution: Human Origins Program

The Institute for Creation Research

One of the most confusing and enigmatic &ldquoape-man&rdquo discoveries of the 21st century has been Homo naledi. Its discoverer was Lee Berger, a controversial American paleoanthropologist working at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. The claims surrounding this discovery have been extolled, criticized, and debated by both evolutionists and creationists. In fact, a 2015 science news piece in The Guardian highlighted the raging controversy among secular academics over H. naledi. It was titled &ldquoScientist who found new human species accused of playing fast and loose with the truth.&rdquo 1

Since the first journal publication describing H. naledi in 2015, 2 much additional work and analyses of the bone fragments and other archaeological and geological aspects of the research have been published. As a result, we can now step back and take a fresh look at all the data and conclude that yet another false ape-man story has been perpetrated upon the public to prop up a failed paradigm of human evolution.

History of the Homo naledi Discovery

The story told by Berger in his book Almost Human reveals that a former student mysteriously showed up and convinced him to support an effort to explore caves in the area of South Africa where he was working. 3 The student also persuaded Berger to utilize the labor of several amateurs experienced in cave exploration. Fortuitously for Berger, the amateur explorers were able to penetrate the nearly inaccessible lower reaches of the Rising Star cave system and find a remote chamber littered with fossils. Berger&rsquos initial reaction to the pictures provided by the cavers of some of the fossils protruding from the chamber sediments was &ldquoIt wasn&rsquot human that much was clear.&rdquo 3

As the Rising Star cave system progresses downward, two extremely narrow passages connect the two lowest chambers (Figure 1). When Berger investigated the cave system, he just barely squeezed through the first narrow passage, called Superman&rsquos Crawl, and entered into a large chamber called the Dragon&rsquos Back. He immediately noticed that the walls were covered with fossils. In his book he states, &ldquoThis chamber alone deserved further investigation, but we were here to see fossils farther on.&rdquo 3

Numerous fossils were embedded in sediments in the Dragon&rsquos Back wall through obvious flooding of the cave system. Berger&rsquos initial announcements omitted this highly relevant fact. They claimed the fossils in the chamber below it, the Dinaledi Chamber, had been intentionally buried&mdashnot flood-deposited. This chamber contained the fossils Berger was most interested in. Berger could not get through the narrow chute to reach it, so he hired a team of six thin, small women to do the fossil excavations.

After several rounds of excavation, the Dinaledi Chamber yielded 1,550 mostly disarticulated bone fragments plus an undisclosed number of rodent and bird fossils, all buried in a shallow layer of clay-rich sediment. Berger&rsquos team tried to piece together as much of this hodgepodge of bones as they could and claimed that 15 different individuals were represented in total. These findings supposedly documenting an alleged new hominid species were then published in the lower-tier scientific journal eLife. 2 Berger&rsquos discoveries and new hominid claims also benefited from popular media coverage provided by National Geographic magazine.

However, Berger&rsquos discovery soon became controversial. World-famous hominid paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley revealed to the press that the prestigious journal Nature had previously rejected Berger&rsquos paper along with its conclusions. 4 In other words, Berger&rsquos claims concerning H. naledi were being met with strong skepticism even among evolutionists.

Another odd twist to the H. naledi story is the incriminating revelation made by Berger in his book that his group had known about another section of the cave system containing more hominid fossils that was much more easily accessible, but they kept it quiet while the H. naledi story was being formulated. Then later, in 2017, Berger&rsquos group published a paper detailing the presence of at least three more H. naledi fossils in this other section in what is now called the Lesedi Chamber. 5

What Is Homo naledi?

Many problems surround the myriad of bone fragments and their reconstruction to supposedly reveal 15 new hominids from the Dinaledi Chamber. We&rsquoll examine three. The first problem is that of homogeneity&mdashwhether all the fossils even belong to the same species. Berger and his researchers initially claimed (and still do) that the bones were homogeneous in their representation of a single almost-human species. 2,6

However, the extreme non-homogeneity of the fossils was first noted by Jeffrey Schwartz, a well-known evolutionary biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who believed that the huge mix of bone fragments was too varied to represent a single species. He said, &ldquoI could show those images to my students and they would say that they&rsquore not the same.&rdquo 7 Schwartz also claimed that one of the skulls looked like it came from an australopith (ape-like creature), as did certain features of the femurs. In a 2018 paper analyzing inner ear bones from the Dinaledi Chamber, Berger and his team state, &ldquoThe Dinaledi ossicles resemble those of chimpanzees and Paranthropus robustus [an ape] more than they do later members of the genus Homo.&rdquo 8

Since the original 2015 eLife publication, numerous research papers describing anatomical analyses of the bone assemblage have been published, mostly by members of Berger&rsquos team. They keep showing that H. naledi is nothing more than a suspicious hodgepodge of ape-like bones (Australopithecus) and a few human-like bones. These papers reported on analyses of skulls, pelvic remains, leg bones, hands, and feet and give the same original confusing anatomical mosaic story. 6,9-13 One of the few critical papers published outside Berger&rsquos group contradicted the claims that H. naledi had flat, human-like feet. 14 In addition, a very recent paper analyzing pelvic remains stated:

Though this species has been attributed to Homo based on cranial and lower limb morphology, the morphology of some of the fragmentary pelvic remains recovered align more closely with specimens attributed to the species Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus africanus. 10

The most recent attempt to bolster H. naledi as being almost human involved the study of a skull endocast (a cast of the inside of the cranium). This report by Berger&rsquos group claims, &ldquoH. naledi shared some aspects of human brain organization.&rdquo 15 They are referring to a human-specific brain region called BA45. However, when Shawn Hurst, one of the study authors, consulted with Dean Falk, a neurobiology specialist in hominid paleontology at Florida State University, Falk disagreed:

&ldquoWe agreed on most of the interpretations,&rdquo she says&mdashbut not on the presence of a modern BA45&hellip.&ldquoI&rsquom not seeing BA45,&rdquo says Falk. &ldquoTo me the general shape of the region looks ape-like.&rdquo 16

The Dating Problem

A second problem concerns the dating of H. naledi. When H. naledi was first published, there were no official radiometric dates to go along with it&mdashjust the evolutionary speculations of Berger and his team. They stated, &ldquoIf the fossils prove to be substantially older than 2 million years, H. naledi would be the earliest example of our genus that is more than a single isolated fragment.&rdquo 2 These evolutionarily optimistic speculations of millions of years were soon to be dashed against the stones of their own old earth-biased radiometric techniques.

In 2017, a report was published using six different types of dating techniques. 17 These included radiocarbon (C-14), electron-spin resonance (ESR), uranium-thorium decay (U-Th), and optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL) in a central age statistical model (CAM), and OSL in a minimal age model (MAM). These techniques were applied to bones, teeth, and flowstones in the cave that were located where the fossils were found, with some even partially covering the fossils. Depending on the technique, ages came forth that varied widely from 33,000 to 849,000 years.

The youngest dates were derived from the C-14, U-Th, and ESR dating of the fossil bones and teeth, which gave ages from 33,000 to 146,000 years. In the end, the researchers rejected these dates and instead decided upon the older dates taken from the rocks and the high end of the range from the teeth. The researchers stated:

By combining the US-ESR maximum age estimate obtained from the teeth, with the U-Th age for the oldest flowstone overlying Homo naledi fossils, we have constrained the depositional age of Homo naledi to a period between 236 ka and 335 ka. 17

However, even these cherry-picked dates completely throw off the original evolutionary story of H. naledi being a human ancestor since Homo erectus fossils have been found that supposedly date up to 1.9 million years. 18 And H. naledi would have also been contemporaneous with anatomically modern humans, which according to evolutionists have been around for at least the past 300,000 years. 19 As a result, the researchers of the dating study conceded:

These age results demonstrate that a morphologically primitive hominin, Homo naledi, survived into the later parts of the Pleistocene in Africa, and indicate a much younger age for the Homo naledi fossils than have previously been hypothesized based on their morphology. 17

The Intentional Burial Story

A third problem concerns Berger&rsquos contention that the bones were intentionally buried. Not only were the extremely young (by evolutionary standards) dates a severe problem for the embattled H. naledi, but the ridiculous story originally put forth by Berger and his team for the bones being intentionally and ritually buried has been just as troubling. The companion paper to the original 2015 publication describing the geology at the site stated:

The fossils are contained in mostly unconsolidated muddy sediment with clear evidence of a mixed taphonomic signature indicative of repeated cycles of reworking and more than one episode of primary deposition. 20

So, not only were the fossils completely disarticulated and jumbled up in a muddy deposit, they were also intermixed with various bird and rodent bones.

As noted earlier, Berger revealed in his book that the Dragon&rsquos Back Chamber above the Dinaledi had walls covered with unspecified fossils. These were clearly washed in with so much water that they were pushed up and pasted against the sides of the cave. The obvious implication of both the geology and the wide array of disarticulated creatures is that all the bones were washed into the lowest chamber of the cave system by gravity through flooding.

Even more suspicious is Berger&rsquos careful storytelling to support his claim that the H. naledi fossils were purposefully buried while at the same time he hid the Lesedi Chamber discovery. If his story were true, then the Lesedi Chamber would have been a more logical location for the original participants to bury their dead since it is much more easily accessible and would not have required the super-gymnastic athletic ability needed to enter the Dinaledi Chamber. Also, why are we not being told what types of fossils were buried in the Dragon&rsquos Back Chamber directly above it? Is it because it contains the same hodgepodge of fossil debris as the Dinaledi Chamber below it? This would prove they were all deposited during a cave flooding event.

Along with the obvious fact that the muddy, jumbled deposit of bones looks exactly like it would if they were washed in by a local flood, the geology of the cave has now shown that it is largely a single deposit. 21 In addition, a machine-learning computer study demonstrated that based on the position of the bones compared to authentic ancient burial sites, H. naledi was not intentionally buried. 22 These data also fit well with the fact that no tools or signs of human occupation have been found in the cave, nor are there any signs of the use of burning torches to provide the light necessary for traversing the pitch-black environment and its narrow and treacherous passages.

Furthermore, a forensic microscopic analysis of the H. naledi bones indicates they were fed on by snails that only live in the entrances of caves where there is some light. 23 When you combine this with the fact that the smaller H. naledi bones were broken up, the real story emerges that these ape-like creatures were likely killed by carnivores and then hauled into the entrance of the cave system. 23 They were then severely disarticulated as they were fed on and their carcasses continued to be scavenged. Eventually the bones, along with those of rodents and birds, were washed and deposited into the recesses of the cave by flooding and gravity.

Conclusion: Another Failed Attempt at Human Evolution

So, what can we make of all the bone fragment analyses and the conflicting results that vary depending on which particular bone fragments are being evaluated and who is doing the analysis? First, it is highly likely that most, if not all, of the hominid bones in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers belong to Australopithecus (ape-like creatures). It is possible that a small human, perhaps a juvenile, could have been killed by a predator and added to the majority australopith mix. Given the track record of Lee Berger in the case of his previous Australopithecus sediba discovery, which was later determined to likely be a mix of human and mostly ape-like bones, this is entirely feasible. 24

When you combine the ape-like nature of the fossil bones with the young dates achieved by evolutionary methods, as well as the overwhelming data for carnivory and a cave flooding-based deposition, H. naledi stands as nothing but another failed attempt at promoting human evolution.

The Skull of Homo Naledi

Excerpt from Homo Naledi: The Rising Star of Evolutionary Icons by Heath Henning. This book can be downloaded for free.

Wikipedia reported “Four skulls were discovered, thought to be two female and two males…” 1) Wikipedia, Homo naledi https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_naledi The Berger et al. paper stated, “The endocranial volume of all H. naledi specimens is clearly small compared to most known examples of Homo…. Despite its small vault size, the cranium of H. naledi is structurally similar to those of early Homo.” 2) Lee Berger, et al., “Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa,” Sep 10, 2015, http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09560.full Notice how this varies dramatically from Dawkin’s discussion saying that the small size was a problem for the creature to be identified as Homo genus (human kind), he concludes, however, we should no longer consider large brains to be the hallmark of defining what is unique about genus Homo. 3) See Dawkin’s quote in Heath Henning, Homo Naledi: The Rising Star of Evolutionary Icons, p. 41 His ridiculous conclusion is simply following the suggested rout from Berger and his team. They claim the structure is similar enough to ignore the size difference.

National Geographic revealed “In their general morphology they clearly looked advanced enough to be called Homo. But the braincases were tiny—a mere 560 cubic centimeters for the males and 465 for the females… These were not human beings. These were pinheads, with some human like parts.” 4) Jamie Shreeve, “This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?” Sep. 10, 2015, National Geographic http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change / The error is to claim “some human like parts” unless they are liberally defining the word “like.” However, they are accurate in the comments about the braincases identifying that they were not human beings—but then why insist on calling them Homo? The range of braincase 465-560 is consistent with Orangutans and Chimpanzees but humans generally measure at 1100-1700, twice the size of H. naledi. This is an extremely important factor to note.

Since there are variations in tissues and fluids, the cranial capacity is never exactly equal to brain size, but can give an approximation. A skull’s capacity is determined by pouring seeds or buckshot into the large hole at the base of the skull (foramen magnum), then emptying the pellets in to a measuring jar. The volume is usually given in cubic centimeters (cc.). Living humans have a cranial capacity ranging from about 950cc. to 1,800cc., with the average about 1,400cc. 5) Richard Milner, The Encyclopedia of Evolution: Humanity’s Search for Its Origin, Henry Holt and Company, 1993, p. 98

Sci-News quoted Paul Dirks, mentioning:

“The features of Homo naledi are similar to other early hominids combining a human-like face, feet and hands, but with a short, ape-like torso and a very small brain,” said Prof. Paul Dirks of James Cook University. 6) “Homo naledi: New Species of Human Ancestor Dicovered” Sep. 10, 2015, Sci-News http://www.sci-news.com/othersciences/anthropology/science-homo-naledi-03224.html

However, the reports and images cannot verify this claim from Dirks. Dr. Elizebeth Mitchell accurately assessed, “Nevertheless, despite a sloped lower face and—based on the published photographs—no vissible evidence of the protruding nasal bones typical of all humans, Berger has identified the fossils as a new species of human ancestor, Homo naledi.” 7) Dr. Elizebeth Mitchell, “Is Homo naledi a New Species of Human Ancestor?” Sep. 12, 2015, https://answersingenesis.org/human-evolution/homo-naledi-new-species-human-ancestor / What Dr. Mitchell is identifying is summed up more clearly by Dr. Dave Menton, “The human skull is easily distinguished from all living apes, though there are, of course, similarities. The vault of the skull is large in humans because of their relatively large brain compared to apes. From this perspective, the face of the human is nearly vertical, while that of the ape slopes forward from its upper face to its chin. From a side view, the bony socket of the eye (the orbit) of an ape is obscured by its broad, flat upper face. Humans, on the other hand, have a more curved upper face and forehead, clearly revealing the orbit of the eye from a side view. Another distinctive feature of the human skull is the nose bone that our glasses rest on. Apes do not have protruding nasal bones and would have great difficulty wearing glasses.” 8) Dr. David Menton, “Did Humans Really Evolve from Apelike Creatures?” http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/nab2/humans-evolve-apelike-creatures

The image below was presented by the National Geographic article to present the comparison of the Homo naledi skull to the average human skull. National Geographic indicated that the H. naledi skull in the image was the largest one found at 560 cubic centimeters though left no indicator of the approximate size shadowed by the human skull. Did they offer the largest scale possible for the human skull or the smallest to attempt to gap the obvious visual size difference?

[Image retrieved from nationalgeographic.com 9) Jamie Shreeve, “This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?” Sep. 10, 2015, National Geographic http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change / ]

Notice how only giving the skull cap and jaw, the image is forced within a human skull shadowed in the back ground. Is this a fair representation? First, note the slope of the human skull from the top to the brow ridge in comparison to the H. naledi. The angle is significantly different.

Notice next how National Geographic identifies the slope from the bottom of the human skull is almost the exact angle they give to the H. naledi skull. Again, we ask if the is accurate representation of filling in the gap of the bones.

Finally, draw your attention to the slope at the angle one would expect to find if we followed a consistent trajectory of the angle identifiable from the jaw and the forehead. Calculating these angles we can see that the skull cap should be pushed further back for an accurate representation.

The Mystery of Homo naledi

A new human species possessing traits of both ancient hominids and modern humans has been found to have lived far more recently than scientists initially believed—pointing to the existence of a “shadow lineage” of primitive humans that may have lived alongside Homo sapiens in southern Africa up until the Middle Stone Age.

In 2013, two spelunkers exploring a cavern near Johannesburg, South Africa stumbled upon a treasure trove of ancient hominid remains. The bones were soon after discovered to be the remains of a previously unknown cousin to humans, and were named Homo naledi, after the Sethoso world for “star.” The hominid, a tiny 5-foot tall species with a brain size and torso shape that resembled early hominids, but with several features (including hand and spinal shape) mirroring modern humans, seemed to fit somewhere between our more ancient ape-like ancestors such as Australopithicus and modern human cousins such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthales. Because of this, scientists estimated Homo naledi to be somewhere around 2 million years old– but until recently, they didn’t know just how old the species was.

By Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, United Kingdom

Origins of Homo naledi

In 2015, researchers analyzing the Homo naledi bones found that the remains dated back to some 236,000 to 335,000 years ago, far more recent then expected. This places Homo naledi as living at least until the Middle Stone Age, at which time our own Homo sapiens ancestors were moving into southern Africa (around 200,000 years ago). There’s a strong chance, some scientists say, that the far more primitive Homo naledi may have interacted in the latter part of its existence with Homo sapiens, and that Homo sapiens may even be responsible for the species’ ultimate extinction, outcompeting them in the same way our species is believed to have done with the Neanderthals.

The idea is not without precedent. The species Homo floresiensis, better known as the “Hobbits,” is believed by some scientists to have evolved from early, more primitive human ancestors and surviving unchanged in Indonesia for millions of years after migrating out of Africa. Much like H.naledi, Homo floresiensis is believed to have gone extinct around the time Homo sapiens arrived in its part of the world around 50,000 years ago, driven to the brink by competition with our own species.

Given H. naledi’s ape-like appearance, scientists believe that the species may have initially evolved some 2 million years ago, nearly 1.8 million years before modern humans emerged, then survived in southern Africa nearly unchanged while the Homo genus eventually continued to evolve into Homo habilis, Homo erectus and, eventually, Homo sapiens.

Lee Roger Berger research team

However, Not Everyone Agrees

Other scientists, however, disagree with the idea of Homo naledi surviving unchanged for millions of years, arguing that the bones are far too recent for a hominid from the base of the human tree to have lived until so soon. Instead, they propose that Homo naledi may have evolved from a more anatomically-modern human thousands (instead of millions) of years ago, then later evolved more primitive-like features.

Either way the existence of another human species in southern Africa during the Middle Stone Age means that some of the stone tools uncovered in the region may have been mislabeled as belonging to Homo sapiens, when they could have in fact originated from H.naledi, argues Lee Berger, the lead scientist behind the discovery. However, to date no stone tools have been found with H.naledi bones, although this doesn’t rule out the possibility of the species having tool-making capabilities.

Berger also says that mass the placement of the bodies within the South Africa cave that they were found may point to an early form of ceremonial burial, a claim that has proven controversial. Scientists have counter-argued that the bodies instead may have been deposited in the cave to avoid attracting predators, rather than because of religious significance.

The discovery and aging of H.naledi serves to continue to flesh out the ever-expanding story of our species, which is quickly developing into a complicated web rather than a clear species-by-species progression, full of dead ends, false starts, and species at different evolutionary stages existing at the same time.

For More Information

  • reconstruction of Homo naledi skull: By Martinvl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
  • skeletal remains: By Lee Roger Berger research team (http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09560) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
  • skull comparison: By Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, United Kingdom [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Article by Devin Windelspecht. Devin is a junior at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations. Devin is responsible for background work on many of the articles on the site, as well as preparing articles on recent scientific discoveries.


The self-proclaimed name Cradle of Humankind reflects the fact that the site has produced a large number of (as well as some of the oldest) hominin fossils ever found, some dating back as far as 3.5 million years ago. [1] [2] [3]

In 1935, Robert Broom found the first ape-man fossils at Sterkfontein and began work at this site. In 1938, a young schoolboy, Gert Terrblanche, brought Raymond Dart fragments of a skull from nearby Kromdraai which later were identified as Paranthropus robustus. Also in 1938, a single ape-man tooth was found at the Cooper's site between Kromdraai and Sterkfontein. In 1948, the Camp-Peabody Expedition from the United States worked at Bolts Farm and Gladysvale looking for fossil hominids but failed to find any. Later in 1948, Robert Broom identified the first hominid remains from Swartkrans cave. In 1954, C.K. Brain began working at sites in the Cradle, including Cooper's Cave. He then initiated his three-decade work at Swartkrans cave, which resulted in the recovery of the second-largest sample of hominid remains from the Cradle. The oldest controlled use of fire by Homo erectus was also discovered at Swartkrans and dated to over 1 million years ago. [10] [11]

In 1966, Phillip Tobias began his excavations of Sterkfontein which are still continuing and are the longest continuously running fossil excavations in the world. In 1991, Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand discovered the first hominid specimens from the Gladysvale site, making this the first new early hominid site to be discovered in South Africa in 48 years. In 1994, Andre Keyser discovered fossil hominids at the site of Drimolen. In 1997, Kevin Kuykendall and Colin Menter of the University of the Witwatersrand found two fossil hominid teeth at the site of Gondolin. Also in 1997, the near-complete Australopithecus skeleton of "Little Foot", dating to around 3.3 million years ago (although more recent dating suggest it is closer to 2.5 million years ago), was discovered by Ron Clarke. In 2001, Steve Churchill of Duke University and Lee Berger found early modern human remains at Plovers Lake. Also in 2001, the first hominid fossils and stone tools were discovered in-situ at Coopers. In 2008, Lee Berger discovered the partial remains of two hominids (Australopithecus sediba) in the Malapa Fossil Site that lived between 1.78 and 1.95 million years ago.

In October 2013, Berger commissioned geologist Pedro Boshoff to investigate cave systems in the Cradle of Humankind for the express purpose of discovering more fossil hominin sites. Cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker discovered hominid fossils in a previously unexplored area of the Rising Star/Westminster Cave System assigned site designation UW-101. In November 2013, Berger led a joint expedition of the University of the Witwatersrand and National Geographic Society to the Rising Star Cave System near Swartkrans. In just three weeks of excavation, the six-woman international team of advance speleological scientists (K. Lindsay Eaves, Marina Elliott, Elen Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, Hannah Morris, and Becca Peixotto), chosen for their paleoanthropological and caving skills, as well as their small size, recovered over 1,200 specimens of a presently unidentified fossil hominin species. The site is still in the process of being dated. In September 2015, Berger, in collaboration with National Geographic, announced the discovery of a new species of human relative, named Homo naledi, from UW-101. [12] [13] [14] Most remarkably, besides shedding light on the origins and diversity of our genus, H. naledi also appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously thought limited to humans. [15] [16] In the last days of the Rising Star Expedition, cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker discovered additional fossil hominid material in another portion of the cave system. Preliminary excavations at this site, designated UW-102, have begun and yielded complete hominid fossil material of its own. It is unknown what the relationship of sites 101 and 102 is. [17] [18] [19]

Paige Fossil History

The Rising Star cave system & other sites in S. Africa from the Middle Pleistocene.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently (or you’re avoiding the news, understandably), you might have noticed some big announcements came out of South Africa this week. A team of researchers, led by Lee Berger and John Hawks, announced 1) the age of Homo naledi 2) a new chamber discovered with fossils in it 3) a relatively complete naledi skeleton from that chamber. As expected, these stories made headlines. Some excellent overviews of these findings have already been written–including this one by Nathan Lents–so I’d like to do something different. I want to address a problem of a subset of news headlines, headlines that screamed that the naledi news was “controversial” and hotly debated. This is a common problem with the media, specifically science communication, who are trying to get people to click on their stories by calling a discovery “the first,” “the most,” “controversial,” etc.

I’m here today to advocate a change in that practice. Let’s celebrate the fossils for what they are (amazing) and for what they teach us (a lot). A fossil discovery doesn’t have to be over-the-top-controversial to be interesting (and spoiler alert–from my vantage point on the edge of paleoanthropology–this news does not appear to incite quite the rage or disbelief some headlines imply). Fossil discoveries can be interesting, fascinating, and exciting for other reasons, the recent naledi announcement is a great example. Science is all about asking new questions, exploring the unknown, and questioning previous hypotheses. Now that is exciting. From day one, naledi has forced us to do just that: question our previous notions and ask questions previously unimaginable. So I’ve come up with a short list of other reasons we can celebrate naledi, besides controversy:

  1. Fossilsare beautiful. I mean, have you seen this face? Take a minute to look at it. Really look at it. I can’t be the only person who wants to celebrate just seeing this member of the hominin family tree for the first time, right? Those bones of the face–especially around the nose–are very delicate, they don’t usually preserve for hundreds of thousands of years. And don’t even get me started on how much of the skeleton was recovered–a truly rare feat. Neo’s mere existence and degree of preservation is headline worthy, it’s no wonder the skeleton’s name means “gift.”
    On a related note, retrieving rare, delicate fossils is not an easy task. It’s easy to overlook the amount of work that goes into discovering a skeleton like Neo, removing it from the ground safely, and studying it. A huge round of applause goes out to the cavers who discovered this chamber, as well as the excavators who lay wedged between rocks for hours at a time to remove the delicate bones.
  2. We learned something new. Well, we learned quite a few new things–and there’s more to come, I’m sure. We learned that naledi was unquestionably a species of hominins living in South Africa approximately 300,000 years ago, with fairly limited variation (the skull of Neo compared to the original skull announced in 2015 is strikingly similar). We learned that it’s possible to retain primitive traits like small brains and climbing adaptations into the recent past. But arguably the most shocking and interesting thing about this new round of finds is that we learned modern humans were definitely not alone in South Africa in the recent past.

Adding to the collection of wonderful skulls. More on this figure in elife paper.

From these recent announcements, scientists have shown us something we’ve never seen before, taught us new things, and forced many of us to rethink our place in nature. That sort of wonder and growth is what science is all about, don’t you think? * Note *: there will always be discussion, debate, and a healthy dose of controversy in science, that’s what science is all about: challenging ideas in order to strengthen and advance knowledge. I’m not trying to minimize controversy or pretend it’s not there–it’s very important to the overall endeavor. I just think the media sometimes plays it up when there are other news-worthy aspects to paleoanthropology.

I find these points (and many others) much more interesting than reports of somewhat-invented-controversy. What else have I missed that is worth celebrating? Tell me in the comments!

John Hawks, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Paleoanthropologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Senior research fellow, Southern Cross University

Honorary Research Associate, Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Postdoctoral fellow, University of Otago

Head of Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University

Editor-in-Chief of the South African Journal of Science and Consultant, Vice Principal for Research and Graduate Education, University of Pretoria

Senior lecturer, Southern Cross University

Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology and Paleontology, University of Bath

Watch the video: New Human Ancestor Discovered: Homo naledi EXCLUSIVE VIDEO. National Geographic