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.
The new species, 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 only just scratching the surface and that there may be hundreds or even thousands more fossilized remains waiting to be unearthed.
H. 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.
What makes the discovery truly unique is the context of the find and what it tells us about who and what this primitive-looking hominid might have been. Researchers believe that H. naledi may have done something previously thought to be unique to humans: intentionally putting the bodies of its dead into a remote cave chamber in what scientists describe as a ‘ritualized behaviour’.