Homo Naledi: New species of ancient human discovered, claim scientists

Article from The Guardian:

Explorers discovered the bones after squeezing through a fissure high in the rear wall of the Rising Star cave, 50km from Johannesburg, before descending down a long, narrow chute to the chamber floor 40 metres beneath the surface.

The entrance chute into the Dinaledi chamber is so tight – a mere eight inches wide – that six lightly built female researchers were brought in to excavate the bones. Footage from their cameras was beamed along 3.5km of optic cable to a command centre above ground as they worked inside the cramped enclosure.

The women recovered more than 1,500 pieces of bone belonging to at least 15 individuals. The remains appear to be infants, juveniles and one very old adult. Thousands more pieces of bone are still in the chamber, smothered in the soft dirt that covers the ground.

The leaders of the National Geographic-funded project believe the bones – as yet undated – represent a new species of ancient human relative. They have named the creature Homo naledi, where naledi means “star” in Sesotho, a local South African language. But other experts on human origins say the claim is unjustified, at least on the evidence gathered so far. The bones, they argue, look strikingly similar to those of early Homo erectus, a forerunner of modern humans who wandered southern Africa 1.5m years ago.

“We’ve found a new species that we are placing in the genus Homo, which is really quite remarkable,” said Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist who led the work at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He described the slender, small-brained creatures as “long-legged”, “pinheaded” and “gangly”. The males stood about 5ft, with females a little shorter.

Measurements of the bones show that the creature has a curious blend of ancient ape and modern human-like features. Its brain is tiny, the size of a gorilla’s. Its teeth are small and simple. The thorax is primitive and ape-like, but its hands more modern, their shape well-suited to making basic tools. The feet and ankles are built for walking upright, but its fingers are curved, a feature seen in apes that spend much of their time in the trees. The findings are reported in two papers published in the online journal eLife.

Lee Bergen’s daughter Megan and underground exploration team member Rick Hunter navigate the narrow chutes leading to the Dinaledi chamber.
Lee Bergen’s daughter Megan and underground exploration team member Rick Hunter navigate the narrow chutes leading to the Dinaledi chamber. Photograph: Robert Clark/National Geographic

The Dinaledi chamber has been visited by explorers in the past, and the soft sediments in which the bones were found have been badly disturbed. Because the remains were not encased in rock, Berger’s team has not been able to date them. They could be 3m years old, or far more modern. No other animals were found in the chamber that might hint at when the human relative got there.

“If this is an ancient species, like a coelacanthe, that has come down through time and is only tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years old, it means that during that time we had a complex species wandering around Africa, perhaps making tools. That would make archaeology very difficult, because we aren’t going to know who made what,” Berger said.

John Hawks, a researcher on the team, said that despite some of its modern features, Homo naledi probably belonged at the origins of our genus, Homo. “It’s telling us that evolutionary history was probably different to what we had imagined,” he said. Paul Dirks, another scientist involved, said that work was ongoing to establish the age of the bones. Some tests, such as carbon dating, will destroy the material, and will only be tried once the bones have been studied more closely.

Without knowing the age of the bones, some researchers see the fossils as little more than novelties. “If they are as old as two million years, then they might be early South African versions of Homo erectus, a species already known from that region. If much more recent, they could be a relic species that persisted in isolation. In other words, they are more curiosities than game-changers for now,” said William Jungers, an anthropologist at Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York.

Christoph Zollikofer, an anthropologist at the University of Zurich, said that many of the bone characteristics used to claim the creature as a new species are seen in more primitive animals, and by definition cannot be used to define a new species. “The few ‘unique’ features that potentially define the new species need further scrutiny, as they may represent individual variation, or variation at the population level,” he said. Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, goes further. “From what is presented here, they belong to a primitive Homo erectus, a species named in the 1800s.”

The Dinaledi chamber is extremely hard to access today, raising the question of how the creatures came to be there. They may have clambered in and become stuck, or died when water filled the cave. But Berger and his colleagues favour a more radical explanation. “We have, after eliminating all of the probable, come to the conclusion that Homo naledi was utilising this chamber in a ritualised fashion to deliberately dispose of its dead,” Berger said.

The team lays out fossils of Homo naledi at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute.
The team lays out fossils of Homo naledi at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute. Photograph: Robert Clark/National Geographic

The conclusion is not widely accepted by others. “Intentional disposal of rotting corpses by fellow pinheads makes a nice headline, but seems like a stretch to me,” said Jungers. Zollikofer agrees. “The ‘new species’ and ‘dump-the-dead’ claims are clearly for the media. None of them is substantiated by the data presented in the publications,” he said. Hawks is open to other explanations, but said that disposal made sense. “The evidence really tends to exclude the idea that they entered the chamber one at a time, alive, over some time, because we have infants, small children, and very old adults who would almost certainly not have managed to get into this chamber without being deposited there.”

October issue of National Geographic.
October issue of National Geographic.

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said that how the creatures reached their final resting place was a “big puzzle”.

“If we’re talking about intentional disposal, we’re talking about creatures with a brain the size of a gorilla’s going deep into a cave, into the dark, and posting bodies through a small fissure into this cave chamber. It’s remarkably complex behaviour for what we’d think of as a very primitive human-like species. Whether there are other explanations remains to be seen, but it’s one of the plausible explanations,” he said.


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10 responses to “Homo Naledi: New species of ancient human discovered, claim scientists

  1. thordaddy


    It’s crazy this desire to “fill in the gaps…” This desire to “equate” through a single line of descent to an origin of life? It’s odd that multiple origins over time encompassing the same “building blocks” and “finely tuned” environment is never pondered. Clearly, there are men with what they believe is God-ordained free will and “men” who “believe” in just “free will.” How then one can claim a single origin is simply that… A CLAIM… An assertion to which reality seems to blow to pieces. Human biodiversity… The nearly incomprehensible diversity of the biota “itself” SCREAMS multiple origins over time. New origins should be springing to life at least once in a lifetime. Of course, how one could then ideologically reconcile this with “equality” becomes a task too great. “Evolution” = descent from origin AND NOT human biodiversity. HBD = living inequalities in the total biota. Descent with modification is the attempted imposition of “radical autonomy,” ie., the “dominance” of “men” void of God-ordained free will.

  2. I don’t know that this article makes a claim as to whether man had one origin or “multiple origins” as you say. It certainly is not “clear” to me that any claim as to man’s origin has anything to do with free-will (God ordained or otherwise) or your theory of “radical autonomy.” Perhaps you could expand on why you feel this is the case.

  3. thordaddy


    The key to a “default elite” is a mass of self-annihilators. Keep it simple. If you have a society of ten people and two or three can “preach” the other seven or eight into self-annihilating then the two or three are an “elite” by default. This is the process at play and “evolution” is one of those memes that “preach” self-annihilation. Descent with modification = no God-ordained free will = intolerable imposition on those with God-ordained free will. There is a third relevant party not desirous of a self-refuting “default elite” status and also repulsed by the mass desire for Final Liberation, ie., self-annihilation. This party is that of the white Supremacist.

    Look at that picture again? How does that scream out to you “descent?” Forget the “modification” and its pull on your ego. Think just “descent?” *You* ORIGINATED in that face (actually something FAR LESS particular or NOT)? And now *you* are what you are by a pure happenstance of redundant “environment?”

    • Explain how “decent with modification = no God-ordained free will”. Please also define these terms with specificity.

      • thordaddy


        Descent with modification means there was an origin of life modified over time. This is what is commonly understood as “evolution” and is considered scientific fact by all anti-Christians and a great number of liberal “Christians.”. The reason MET has been so heavily scrutinized by the white Supremacist is because the “modification” is due changing environment. If you contemplate the incredible timescale and pull back enough to “see” a “changing environment” as a redundant phenomenon then life “evolved” through redundancy, ie., life is an “infinite regress.” *You* are here from an origin of life due redundancy. *You* are simply the lastest modification SOON TO BE NAUGHT due a redundantly “changing environment.” *You* cannot deny a single “evolutionary” modification. Ergo, *you* possess no God-ordained free will.

      • First of all, the physical bodies of species evolve over time but that does not make the individual less special nor does it negate free will. But more than that, don’t you have to go with what the data says? If the data conflicts with your beliefs does that not suggest you should question your beliefs?

      • thordaddy


        What do you actually mean when you say “evolve” and how does God-ordained free will envelope this “evolution” and influence, subvert and override “it?” Certainly, it cannot be the case that “evolution” encompasses God-ordained free will, can it? You are not making the case that “evolution” informs “us” of God-ordained free will, are you?

      • I still am not clear on what you mean by God ordained free will. What is the difference between this concept of yours and the ability choose between right and wrong?

      • thordaddy


        You, like a good relativist, are only conceptualizing “free will” an an action, a choice, an unimpeded physical movement… God-ordained free will IS A GIFT… When you receive this gift wholeheartedly you have THE EXPERIENCE of a Free Will. This experience is not the stuff of “descent with modification.” “Evolution” CANNOT SPEAK the vocabulary necessary to convey this experience to others. “Evolution” is redundancy… The experience of God’s gift is singular in nature, ie., a singularity. The side of “evolution” “will” have “us” in an “infinite regress,” ie., total redundancy, without the blessings and uniqueness of singularities.

      • I still don’t know what you mean by “God Ordained Free Will” based on your description. Please simply define it without resorting to labeling me if possible.

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