By: Max Creager ~Staff Writer~
Deep within the South African cave “Rising Star,” just north of Johannesburg, two recreational cave explorers, Steve Tucker and Rick Hunter, found a collection of preserved and fossilized bones. The two individuals contacted paleoanthropologist Lee Berger from the University of Witwatersrand to inform him of their discovery. The location of the bone finding was through a seven-inch crevice that most researchers are too big to fit through.
“To get to it, you have to move through a seven and a half inch slot wiggling your way across sharp rocks before you drop into this remarkable little chamber,” Berger told national geographic. Inside the chamber the team has claimed to have found 15 distinct individuals. Fossil finds require extensive academic work to compare them to previously uncovered fossils, date them and determine if the discovered bones should be classified as a new transitional species or belong to a distinct category of hominid.
As of now, some researchers are referring to the bones as Homo naledi. This new subspecies of human was named after the cave where it was found. There are features of naledi that indicate to some researchers that it is a new link in the evolutionary history of humans. While features like the legs and feet of naledi resemble a structure closer to humans, it seems that its shoulders, hips and fingers have more primitive qualities. The shape and size of the skull appear to be much smaller than any other classified hominid species.
However, because researches have still not been able to date the fossilized bones, there is still skepticism from the broader scientific community about what they mean for the picture of human evolution. The location of the bones poses more questions for researchers because so many distinct individuals were discovered in the underground location. Some scientists speculate that naledi was intentionally burying its dead.
However, other researchers speculate that the individuals in the cave became stuck in the chamber for other reasons because the usage of a controlled flame to bring dead members to a deep cave location is too complex a behavior for the size of naledi’s brain.
“It appears based upon the context that we have discovered this incredible assemblage of hominid fossils in, is that they were deliberately placed there by their next of kin after death. Homo naledi was doing something that until this moment we thought was unique to modern humans, that is deliberate disposal of the dead,” Berger said. Berger also said that this was only one of the hypotheses that scientists are contemplating. The scientific process surrounding the finding still has a long way to go until there is enough evidence to form theories about naledi and its place in the chain of hominid evolution.