The recent discovery of a previously unknown humanoid species has researchers scratching their heads. Although every new piece of evidence of ancient human history helps to redraw the picture of our past, the discovery of this species in South Africa, named Homo naledi, is perplexing in new ways, as it possesses a curious mix of features. It was also found alongside evidence of more modern burial practices. What will this new evidence tell us about where we come from?
Bones from at least 15 individuals were unearthed deep in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The specimens range in age from infant to elderly, and this find marks the single largest fossil discovery of human remains in Africa to date. The newly discovered species has some unusual features. Their feet were adapted for walking on the ground, but the humanoid’s hands suggest they were also suited for life in the trees, at least partially. This makes it seem as though they were still quite primitive. However, evidence from the fossils suggests this newly discovered species, which had brains only the size of an orange, buried their dead and participated in burial rituals. This makes Homo naledi seem like something of a blend of primitive and modern hominid traits.
The track of human history back through time can get a bit confusing. These days, there is only one species of human walking the earth – we Homo sapiens. But, once upon a time, there were several different humanoid species in existence at the same time, and some of them even crossed paths and interbred, according to other discoveries made earlier this year. To date, the oldest human fossil ever found dates back 2.8 million years. Scientists haven’t been able to determine the age of this newly found species, but it’s quite a bit younger than that.
Although the species has been added to the genus Homo, some in the field aren’t certain that’s where it belongs. Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall at the American Museum of Natural History didn’t participate in the research related to the discovery, but he’s skeptical about the classification. “I’m a great advocate for the notion that the genus Homo has been made overinclusive,” he said. “I don’t like to stuff new things in old pigeonholes. I don’t think we have the vocabulary needed to describe the diversity we’re seeing in early hominins.”
Images via Mark Thiessen/National Geographic and Berger et al/eLifeSciences