Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bones Of New Human-Like Species—‘Homo Naledi’— Discovered In South African Cave

Evolutionary Find


Burial Chamber: “Anthropologist Lee Berger’s daughter, Megan (top), and Rick Hunter, a member of the underground exploration team, navigate the narrow chutes leading to the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave in South Africa. That's where fossilized bones belonging to H. naledi, a new species related to humans, were discovered.  The find was announced by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation and published in the journal eLife.”
Photo Credit: Robert Clark; National Geographic
Source: NPR

An article, by Nell Greenfieldboyce, in NPR reports on a finding that is making the rounds of science sites: fossils of a new hominin species found deep in the chamber of a South African cave—Rising Star, 50 kilometres (or 30 miles) northwest of Johannesburg—that sits in a region called the Cradle of Humankind. The name is given as a recognition that this is indeed the place, the region on earth, where the narrative of human history begins, written in the language of fossils, skulls, skeletons and other bits of bone fragment.

In “South African Cave Yields Strange Bones Of Early Human-Like Species” (September 10, 2015), Greenfieldboyce writes:
Scientists have discovered the fossilized remains of an unusual human-like creature that lived long ago. Exactly how long ago is still a mystery — and that's not the only mystery surrounding this newfound species.
The bones have a strange mix of primitive and modern features, and were found in an even stranger place — an almost inaccessible chamber deep inside a South African cave called Rising Star. “It is perhaps one of the best-known caves in all of South Africa,”says Lee Berger, who studies human evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. In 2013, some local cavers found some fossils inside Rising Star cave. Berger had asked them to be on the lookout, so they brought him photos.
“And there I saw something I perhaps thought I'd never see in my life,” recalls Berger. “That is, clearly primitive hominin remains lying on the floor of a cave.” A jaw and a skull were just sitting there in the dirt — usually such bones are encased in rock.
Berger was excited, but he knew he personally could never reach this fossil site. To get into the cave chamber, you have to climb a steep, jagged rockfall called Dragon's Back, then wiggle through a small opening that leads to a long, narrow crack. The crack is only about 7 1/2 inches wide, and goes down more than 30 feet. Squeezing through it is the only way to reach the chamber of bones at the bottom.
Since he couldn’t go, Berger sent in his tall, skinny 16-year-old son. “When he came out after 45 minutes, he stuck his head out. And to tell you how bad I am, I didn't say: ‘Are you OK?’ I said: ‘And?’ And he says, ‘Daddy, it's wonderful.’”
What was full of wonder was that there were thousands of fossil bones gathered at the bottom of this narrow chamber. The scientific team patiently extracted more than 1,550 bones, belonging to at least 15 individuals—from newborns to elderly adults. These represent only a fraction of the fossils within its confines. Moreover, they do not belong to any previously known species; what they have discovered is a new species that scientists have named. Homo naledi, because “naledi” means star in Sesotho, a local South African dialect.

From the collection of bones, scientists have made a number of inferences, including that these creatures were both short (less than 5 feet tall) and thin; that they had brains one-third the size of modern humans; that they had hands and feet similar to ours; and they walked upright. The mix of primitive and modern human features will likely make scientists reconsider what it is to be human. 

In time, scientists will come up with some further theories on the background of these fossils and, further, what they reveal about our prehistoric ancestors. Perhaps this was an earlier type of burial chamber, and the bodies were intentionally buried deep in the ground for reasons that seem to focus on the spiritual and the need for ritual. “Until this discovery we thought that ritualised behaviours directed towards the dead, things like burial, was totally unique to home sapiens,“ Berger says in an article in The Telegraph. “It perhaps in fact identified us. It may have been our singularly unique thing.”

Truly, there are many things to think about, including reconsidering current assumptions and knowledge of our primitive human ancestors. This finding has led to many questions. One of the first questions paleontologists would likely want to answer is the age of the bones: and, whether they are 100,000 years old or millions of years old will be important knowledge in ascertaining and placing them in the chain of human development. So far, no one can say for certain.

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For more, go to [NPR]; and for a more extensive article, go to [NationalGeographic]

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