Nav: Home

South African cave yields yet more fossils of a newfound relative

May 09, 2017

MADISON, Wis. -- Probing deeper into the South African cave system known as Rising Star, a subterranian maze that last year yielded the largest cache of hominin fossils known to science, an international team of researchers has discovered another chamber with more remains of a newfound human relative, Homo naledi.

The discovery, announced today (May 9, 2017) with the publication of a series of papers in the journal eLife, helps round out the picture of a creature that scientists now know shared the landscape with modern humans -- and probably other hominin species -- between 226,000 and 335,000 years ago. The discovery of the new fossils representing the remains of at least three juvenile and adult specimens includes a "wonderfully complete skull," says University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist John Hawks.

Hawks, a leader of the research team at Rising Star and the lead author of the paper describing the new fossils, says finding more remains of multiple individuals in a chamber some distance from the chamber containing the original Homo naledi fossils lends heft to the idea that Homo naledi was caching its dead -- a surprising behavior that suggests great intelligence and possibly the first stirrings of culture.

"This likley adds weight to the hyposthesis that Homo naledi was using dark, remote places to cache its dead," Hawks observes. "What are the odds of a second, almost identical occurrence happening by chance?"

The new chamber, dubbed the Lesedi Chamber, is nearly 100 meters from the Dinaledi Chamber where the first Homo naledi fossils representing at least 15 indivuduals of various ages were found. So far, the team led by Hawks and Lee Berger, a noted paleoanthropologist from the University of Witwatersrand and a senior author of the paper with Hawks, has retrieved more than 130 new Homo naledi fossils from the Lesedi Chamber, a name that means "light" in the Setswana language.

The new chamber is also exceedingly difficult to access, requiring those excavating the fossils to crawl, climb and squeeze their way in pitch dark to the fossil cache.

The newly-reported remains were first discovered in 2013 while excavations were underway in the Dinaledi Chamber. The new fossils come from at least three individuals -- two adults and a child -- and the researchers believe more will be recovered as excavations progress. The child, estimated to be under five years of age, is represented by bones from the head and body. Of the adults, one is identified only by a jaw and leg bones.

The skeleton of the third individual, dubbed "Neo" after the Sesotho word meaning "a gift," is remarkably complete. The skull has been painstakingly reconstructed, providing a much more complete portrait of Homo naledi. "We finally get a look at the face of Homo naledi," notes Peter Schmid, who holds a joint appointment at the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Zurich, and who spent hundreds of hours reconstructing the fragile bones of the skull.

"The skeleton of 'Neo' is one of the most complete ever discovered, technically more complete than the famous Lucy fossil given the preservation of the skull and mandible," explains Berger, the University of Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist overseeing the Rising Star excavations.

The skull of the new skeleton has much of the face, including the delicate bones of the inner eye region and nose, says Hawks, an expert on early hominins. "Some of the new bones add detail to what we knew before," says the Wisconsin paleoanthropologist. "The 'Neo' skeleton has a complete collarbone and a near-complete femur, which help to confirm what we knew about the size and stature of Homo naledi, and that it was both an effective walker and climber. The vertebrae are just wonderfully preserved, and unique -- they have a shape we've only seen in Neanderthals."

Combined, the two caches of Homo naledi fossils give science its most complete record of a hominin species other than modern humans and Neanderthals.

"With the new fossils from the Lesedi Chamber, we now have approximately 2,000 specimens of Homo naledi, representing the skeletons of at least 18 individuals," Hawks says. "There are more Homo naledi specimens than any other extinct species or population of hominins except for Neanderthals."

The notion that Homo naledi were caching their dead in underground chambers that are exceedingly difficult to get to has one parallel in Neanderthals. In a deep Spanish cave known as Sima de los Huesos, there is evidence that Neanderthals were caching the bodies of their dead companions 400,000 years ago.

"What is so provacative about Homo naledi is that these are creatures with brains one third the size of ours," Hawks says. "This is clearly not a human, yet it seems to share a very deep aspect of behavior that we recognize, an enduring care for other individuals that continues after their deaths. It awes me that we may be seeing the deepest roots of human cultural practices."
-end-
Terry Devitt, (608) 262-8282, trdevitt@wisc.edu

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Related Fossils Articles:

Ancestor of all animals identified in Australian fossils
A team led by UC Riverside geologists has discovered the first ancestor on the family tree that contains most animals today, including humans.
Metabolic fossils from the origin of life
Since the origin of life, metabolic networks provide cells with nutrition and energy.
Fossils of the future to mostly consist of humans, domestic animals
In a co-authored paper published online in the journal Anthropocene, University of Illinois at Chicago paleontologist Roy Plotnick argues that the fossil record of mammals will provide a clear signal of the Anthropocene era.
Exceptional fossils may need a breath of air to form
New research led by The University of Texas at Austin has found that a long held belief by paleontologists about the fossilization process may be wrong.
New 'king' of fossils discovered in Australia
Fossils of a giant new species from the long-extinct group of sea creatures called trilobites have been found on Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
Two tiny beetle fossils offer evolution and biogeography clues
Recently, an international team led by Dr. CAI Chenyang, from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, reported two new and rare species of the extant family Clambidae from Burmese amber: Acalyptomerus thayerae Cai and Lawrence, 2019, and Sphaerothorax uenoi Cai and Lawrence, 2019.
Newly described fossils could help reveal why some dinos got so big
A new, in-depth anatomical description of the best preserved specimens of a car-sized sauropod relative from North America could help paleontologists with unraveling the mystery of why some dinosaurs got so big.
Lilly Pilly fossils reveal snowless Snowy Mountains
Leaf fossils discovered high in Australia's Snowy Mountains have revealed a past history of warmer rainforest vegetation and a lack of snow, in contrast with the alpine vegetation and winter snow-covered slopes of today.
Molecular fossils confirm Dickinsonia as one of Earth's earliest animals
By identifying specific biomarkers preserved alongside fossils of oval-shaped life forms from the Ediacaran Period, fossils from which are typically considered one of the greatest mysteries in paleontology, researchers say the ovular organism is not a fungus or protist, as some have thought, but an early animal.
Fossils reveal diverse mesozoic pollinating lacewings
A research group led by professor WANG Bo from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology has provided new insight into the niche diversity, chemical communication, and defense mechanisms of Mesozoic pollinating insects.
More Fossils News and Fossils Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.