Homo naledi raises questions over ‘birth of consciousness’

Over 1,500 fossil pieces have been brought up from the so-called 'Chamber of Stars' in Maropeng.

[USE ONLY ONCE AND NOT AFTER 10 SEPTEMBER 2015]: A composite skeleton of H. naledis overall body plan and an illustration of how it compares to Homo species such as H. erectus and australopithecines such as Lucy. 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.  Skeleton: Stefan Fichtel/National Geographic Body Comparison Painting: John Gurche; Sources: Lee Berger and Peter Schmid, Wits; John Hawks, University of Wisconsin-Madison

MAROPENG- The discovery of a new species, the Homo naledi, has opened the door to a new debate about what makes humans unique and whether scientists have been wrong about the "birth of consciousness".

Over 1,500 fossil pieces have been brought up from the so-called 'Chamber of Stars' in what is being described as the richest fossil find in the history of the African continent.

Scientists now believe the chamber, located deep inside a network of caves at the Cradle of Humankind, was used by the primitive creatures to bury its dead.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke philosophically about the meaning of discoveries like these, especially in showing that all humans share common ancestry.

"Today we unearth our past. In unearthing our past we also unearth knowledge about our present."

Ramaphosa also spoke about the deeper meaning of the historic find.

"Despite our individual differences in the way we appear, in the languages that we speak; we are bound together by a common ancestry."

The man who led the expedition Professor Lee Berger says Homo naledi's use of an underground chamber is significant.

"We saw ourselves as different. We have now seen, we believe, a species that had that same capacity and that is an extraordinary thing."

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the unveiling of the Homo Naledi fossils. Picture: Christa Eybers/ EWN.

Berger had the honour of introducing the newest human relative to be discovered.

"We have discovered the largest ensemble of fossils of human relatives ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa."

The professor says the theory that Homo naledi used a chamber to dispose of its dead was canvassed with dozens of scientists around the world.

National Geographic's head of exploration Terry Garcia says this find is proof that no matter how much we map out our world, more wonders await.

"I will tell you right now that the 21st century is going to be the greatest age of exploration."

Garcia says more discoveries will follow.

"When it seems that science has answered so many questions, there are still mysteries out there and there are still discoveries that are waiting for us."

The suggestion that Homo naledi may have buried its dead also raises new questions about what makes humans unique from animals.

Meanwhile, South Africans have been called to celebrate the remarkable discovery.

Those who were part of the expedition team say the historic discovery is not only about Africa but about the humanity as a whole.

Lindsay Hunter, who is an underground astronaut, she says working on the ground breaking project has left her feeling 'proudly South African'.

"They said this reinforces the common humanity. I'm for the rainbow nation and I think that is a message that is timeless and that never gets old."

Berger adds they have explored all possibilities and are left with an inescapable conclusion that this primitive creature may have contemplated its own mortality.

"This was not set lightly and it was shopped around hundreds of scientists around the world. We are apparently left with this conclusion."

He adds scientists will now try to date the fossils that prove its existence.

Berger has brushed aside suggestions that these fossils don't represent a new species.

"The species Naledi must be older than 2,5 million to 2,8 million years old - the species. It does not mean the fossils in this chamber are that old."

He says the question of how long ago Homo naledi roamed the earth is a difficult one.

"We do not know how old these fossils are because of the nature of the deposit of the fossil chamber with only hominin fossils in it."

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

At the same time, Ramaphosa says scientists will naturally debate the discovery.

"This chamber really gives us a window of understanding our past, beginning to gain more knowledge about our present moment."

Those who want to see these extraordinary fossils have been given a month to visit the Cradle of Humankind and experience firsthand what's been described as a breakthrough for science.

Take a look at EWN's special feature on _ Homo Naledi._