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New species Homo naledi unveiled in SA

The top secret historic fossil discovery was unveiled at the Cradle of Humankind in Maropeng today.

Long legs suggest Homo naledi was built for walking, while ape-like shoulders suggest it was probably also a good climber. Picture: Supplied.

MAROPENG - A new species with human-like features called Homo naledi has been revealed as a historic discovery made in South Africa.

Details of the significant fossil discovery have been kept secret for years and were unveiled at Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind at 11am today.

It's a ground-breaking discovery that will help us better understand who we are and how we evolved.

It might also make us question what it truly is to be human.

A team of scientists and researchers, led by Wits University professor Lee Berger, believe they've unearthed a new species of human relative in the world's richest hominin fossil site, the Cradle of Humankind.

Homo naledi is named after the chamber in which it was discovered, deep in the Rising Star caves.

The remote underground room has been dubbed the Dinaledi Chamber ('Chamber of Stars' in SeSotho) and has given up a treasure trove of fossilised hominin remains.

The Rising Star Expedition has already removed parts of 15 individuals from the chamber, but researchers believe they're just scratching the surface and that there may be hundreds or even thousands more fossilised remains waiting to be unearthed.

Homo naledi is a bit smaller and a lot older than we are, with curved fingers and a small skull, but in some ways the species is also strikingly similar to humankind.

A reconstruction of Homo naledi's head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. 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. Picture: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic. See more in the October issue of National Geographic magazine or visit http://natgeo.org/naledi

Berger, a paleo-anthropologist, says he feels privileged to be at the centre of this historic discovery, adding, "We never imagined finding anything like this."

HOMO NALEDI 'WILL INSPIRE POETS'

Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa says the discovery is so significant that what has been found will inspire poets.

"Naledi took a small step into that chamber, but for us, as the people of the world, this is a gigantic step to understand who we are."

But there's more.

Berger says all Homo naledi fossils were found inside what's being called the chamber of stars - a deep underground time capsule, and there's only one explanation for that.

"Until this moment in history, we thought that the idea of ritualised behaviours directed towards the dead, things like burial or like secreting your dead into deep chambers, was utterly unique to homo sapiens."

Take a look at EWN's special feature on Homo naledi to understand why this discovery is important.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story and EWN's lunchtime newsletter stated that a new human species had been discovered. It is in fact a new species of human relative.

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