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article imageNew haul of ancient human remains raises evolution questions

By Tim Sandle     May 9, 2017 in Science
What's been described as an ;amazing haul' of ancient human remains has been discovered in an important cave site in South Africa. The remains are of the species Homo naledi.
Not only is the haul of Homo naledi remains impressive in its own right, the placement of the remains in the cave suggest some interesting cultural practices, such as burring of the dead. This custom has surprised researchers who previously assumed that Homo naledi were a relatively simple species (the size of the Homo naledi is only one third of present day humans). A second interesting aspect is the dating of the remains, found in a cave in South Africa, which are traceable back to 235,000 years ago. The significance of this is the possibility that Homo naledi could have crossed-over and interacted with Homo sapiens (in other words, modern day humans). This raises new questions about the path of human evolution.
Homo naledi is an extinct species of hominin (the taxonomical tribe to which modenr day humans belon). With the name, the word "naledi" means "star" in the Sotho dialect (a Southern Bantu languages spoken in Southern Africa). The Homo species has only recently been discovered, being first described by anthropologists in 2015. The first fossil skeletons were discovered in South Africa's Gauteng province, within the Rising Star cave system's Dinaledi Chamber. Homo naledi had a body mass close to small-bodied modern day humans, although the brain region is quite small and of a volume closer to members of the genus Australopithecus (hominins that lived between 4 and 2 million years ago).
The new finding, reported in in May 2017 consists of the remains of two adults and a child. These were found in a second chamber of the original cave. The cave is referred to known as "Lesed" (a word for "light"). One of the adults is described by Professor John Hawks from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as having "wonderfully complete skull." Professor Hawks worked with Professor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on the find. They have named the best preserved skeleton "Neo" – a Sesotho word meaning "a gift".
Speaking about the significance of the find on human evolution, Professor Berger states how tests, using electron spin resonance (ESR) dating, and uranium-thorium (U-Th), on the material showed the bones to be between 335,000 and 236,000 years old. This makes them far younger than many scientists had expected. The researcher told The Guardian: “It means that this species of primitive hominid was actually around at the same time as Homo sapiens."
Modern humans left Africa between 90,000 and 75,000 years ago. Our species subsequently spread globally. Over time there is growing evidence of Homo sapiens co-existing, for short periods of time, with other humans. This turns conventional anthropology on its head for it has been long assumed that most of the evolution of Homo was a story of progress, taking us up to our current species.
What is also interesting are the indications that the individuals may have been deliberately placed in the cave near the time of their death. The researchers hope to find evidence of tools, which will further add to the understanding the cultural practices of the species.
Several new papers about the Homo naledi find have been published in the journal eLife. For example, "New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa" and "The age of [i]Homo naledi[/i] and associated sediments in the Rising Star Cave, South Africa."
More about Homo naledi, Homo sapiens, Humans, Remains
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