If you’ve been online at all over the past couple of weeks, the chances are you’ll have come across something to do with Homo Naledi, the most recent and exciting geological discovery to have captured the attention of the world’s media.
Unearthed by university geologist Lee Berger and his team, the fragment of a fossil jawbone discovered in 2013 was the small start of what promised to be a very exciting and significant discovery – one that has shaken up the world’s understanding of human evolution, while posing never before thought about questions about our identity as human beings.
As indicated by the bones, Homo Naledi seems to have been a mixed melting pot of the ancient and the modern. Its brain was little bigger than an orange, and its hands human-like, but with finger bones locked into a curve, suggesting their use in climbing and tool-like activities. Homo Naledi also stood about 5 feet tall, with long legs, and its feet were almost identical to our own, indicating its ability to walk long distances.
This year, after the initial tip off from cavers in 2013, Berger and his team announced their discovery to the world – a new addition to the human family tree. The behavior scientists involved in the dig stated that they believe Homo Naledi to have buried its dead – a ritual that scientists have thought limited to humans. This startling theory stems from the team’s discovery of the chamber where the fossils were found – an isolated chamber in the cave that contained the remains of infants, children, and adults of all ages.
This chamber, located 30 metres below ground in the already world-renowned Cradle of Humankind, appears to be a burial ground and the team has reason to believe that Homo Naledia could have used fire to light the way to it for the purposes of laying the dead to rest. The team made this assumption due to the lack of presence of damage to the remains from predators or any form of catastrophe. This indicates, Berger stated to CNN, that “we had to come to the inevitable conclusion that Homo Naledi, a non-human species of hominid, was deliberately disposing of its dead in the dark chamber.” Why they were doing this, no one really knows.
“Until the moment of discovery of ‘Naledi,’ I would have probably said to you that it was our defining character. The idea of burial of the dead or ritualized body disposal is something utterly uniquely human,” Berger explained, and now “we have just encountered another species that perhaps thought about its own mortality, and went to great risk and effort to dispose of its dead in a deep, remote, chamber right behind us.”
When asked about the significance of this discovery, Berger stated simply that “It absolutely questions what makes us human. And I don’t think we know anymore what does.” Berger’s team hasn’t been able to date the Homo Naledi fossils yet, which means that they can’t yet be certain as to how significant the discovery really is.
When trying to put it into perspective to the rest of the world, Berger stated that “this is like opening up Tutankhamen’s tomb. It is that extreme and perhaps that influential in this stage of our history.”