Who was Homo naledi?


Homo naledi is believed to be an entirely new species of human relative. That alone makes the discovery remarkable. But what makes it truly special is what it could tell us about the hominin’s behaviour.

The Rising Star Expedition has so far uncovered parts of at least 15 individuals from the Dinaledi Chamber, all with the same distinct features, like curved fingers, small skulls, slender bodies and ape-like shoulders. They vary in age, from infant to elderly.

But here’s the thing: none of the fossils bear any marks that suggest the individuals were killed by carnivores or that their bodies were scavenged. There’s also nothing to indicate that they were carried into the chamber by anything other than fellow hominins, like a flood or a landslide. And they didn’t all arrive in the dark, remote chamber at the same time.

Another interesting fact is that, out of more than 1,550 fossil elements unearthed in the chamber, only a handful belong to animals other than hominins (like mice and birds). Researchers have thus concluded that the remote space would likely not have been very accessible and would have attracted few accidental visitors.

Homo naledi is believed to be an entirely new species of human relative. That alone makes the discovery remarkable. But what makes it truly special is what it could tell us about the hominin’s behaviour.

Professor Lee Berger believes all of this points to the idea that Homo naledi deliberately disposed of its own dead by placing them in the chamber:

“We explored every alternative scenario, including mass death, an unknown carnivore, water transport from another location, or accidental death in a death trap, among others. In examining every other option, we were left with intentional body disposal by Homo naledi as the most plausible scenario.”

A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleo-artist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic. This image is from the October issue of National Geographic. More on http://natgeo.org/naledi.