Humans explore. We have done from the time we began to spread out across Africa, to the touchdown of a man-made spacecraft onto a comet hurtling through space half a billion kilometers away.
We explore because it’s in our DNA. That restless gene that drives us to board ships and sail for the unknown, to smash through walls of ice in the Antarctic, to build metal ears and listen to faint radio waves from other galaxies, or to climb into submarines and descend into the deep.
We explore because we are curious. Because we try and understand what makes us who we are. We study our world to figure out where we came from and where we fit in. To find meaning. Or at least glimmers of it.
That is why the discovery of Homo Naledi is magnificent. Not only does it introduce us to a human relative we had no idea existed, it promises to shake up the entire evolution tree. And in doing so, it helps us better understand our past and allows us to ask questions about one of the most seductive mysteries of all: what marks the birth of human consciousness?
If Homo naledi, this strange creature that is almost human yet so primitive, buried its dead in a sealed-off chamber, can we, modern humans, still claim to be unique? The burial rituals we created and our grasp of mortality always separated us from the animal kingdom. Until now.
How did Naledi navigate the pitch-black labyrinth inside the cave, where a single wrong step is a death plunge? Did it have command of fire? If so, how does that fit into our understanding of human history?
How long ago did Naledi live and when did it fade from existence? What did it look like? What did it eat? What did it think about when it looked up at the night sky? Did it feel that visceral yearning to explore the stars? Or to at least understand the flickers of light? It couldn’t have known that a space rover called Curiosity would someday parachute down onto another planet, Mars, and beam back images of the dusty red planet.
So much connects us to our ancestors. Time divides us. Discoveries like Homo Naledi help pull the two closer together.