homo naledi unknown human ancestor

photo credit: National Geographic

If you thought you knew the facts about our latest ancestors, then think again. “Lucy”, a previous discovery in Africa, is not the most recent find linking us to our primitive roots. It seems that a previously unknown human ancestor has shown us that we may not know much about, well, anything concerning our origins.

A recent discovery by an international team of scientists from Colorado reveals a creature, much like our closest ancestors, but with a much smaller brain. With this discovery of over 1,550 bones, this find is one of the largest on the African continent.

This new species of man was named Homo naledi, named after the cave in which it was found. Naledi means “star” in Sesotho African. A most interesting aspect of this find pertains to the disposal of the 15 bodies ranging from the oldest being around 45 to the youngest, which were infants. It appears that the specimens were disposed of on purpose, dropped, it seems, into the cave from above. This ritualistic behavior is rather human, which makes the fact of the specimen’s tiny brains seem confusing.

Charles Musiba, PhD and CU Denver Associate Professor of Anthropology, said,

“We found adults and children in the cave who are members of the genus Homo but are different from modern humans. They are petite and have the brain size of chimpanzees. The only thing similar are the “hobbits” of the Flores islands in Indonesia.”

The closest specimen to this latest find was the Homo floresien discovered in 2003. These individuals stood around 3 ft. high. They had small brains and curved fingers. The hands were thought to be useful for climbing and a chest size was similar to chimpanzees – this is much like the Homonaledi.

Navigating the cave systems

The expedition to find the Homonaledi was called “The Rising Star”. This expedition revolved around navigating a complex cave system deep underground. Getting into the cave was no easy task. The feat required the help of six ‘underground astronauts’ squeezing through a 7-inch gap. These lucky individuals mainly included women of small frame, which was a necessary choice of gaining access to the cave.

Musiba says,

“You didn’t want to go home because it was so exciting. I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

This finding was another milestone in Musiba’s quest to understand our earliest human ancestors. A team of 30-45 scientists, either waiting for fossils or procuring the items, was led by Lee Berger, a research professor in the Evolutionary studies Institute of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Berger says,

“The cave has not yet given up all her secrets. There are potentially thousands of Naledi remains yet unfound.”

What is the Homo naledi?

Many people assume that new fossils must belong to species that already exist. It may not be that simple. While Homo naledi closely resembles Homo erectus, with its small brain and body size, it also has characteristics of the Australopithecus. Another consideration revolves around the mystery of the fossil site. We simply do not know how old the area is. It is possible that the new species could be an intermediary between the Australopithecus and the Homo erectus. If not, the Homonaledi could have coincided with the development of the larger-brained Homo sapiens.

Musiba says,

“This raises many questions. How many species of humans were there? Did they coexist with modern humans? Did they interbreed?”

Musiba, director of CU Denver’s Tanzania Field School, takes students for hands-on experience around the Laetoli hominin footprints site and the Olduvai Gorge where the oldest hominin remains were found. Here, they discovered ancient footprints of rhinos and lions fossils near those of the hominins. Also, just last year, Musiba became a part of an international team of advisors for building a museum complex in Tanzania. This museum showcased the earliest examples on bipedalism of hominins, with over 70 footprints from over 3 million years ago.

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Sherrie is a freelance writer and artist with over 10 years of experience. She spends most of her time giving life to the renegade thoughts. As the words erupt and form new life, she knows that she is yet again free from the nagging persistence of her muse. She is a mother of three and a lifetime fan of the thought-provoking and questionable aspects of the universe.