Johannesburg (dpa) – A new species of human ancestor has been discovered in a South African cave that has surprised its discoverers with its human-like characteristics and potential use of funerary rites, scientists from Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University said Thursday.
Named Homo naledi, it is thought to be one of the earliest human ancestors. It had a brain a third of the size of man today, a slender body, human-like teeth, ape-like shoulders and feet for long-distance walking.
“Overall, Homo naledi looks like one of the most primitive members of our genus, but it also has some surprisingly human-like features,” said John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an expert participating in the investigation of the discovery.
He described the new species as “a creature that looks like no other hominid we’ve ever found before.”
It stood about 1.5 metres tall and weighed an average of 45 kilogrammes. Its human-like hands suggest that it might have made tools.
The discovery of Homo naledi was based on more than 1,550 fossil elements, the single largest fossil hominin find in Africa. They were discovered in 2013 at the archaeological World Heritage Site known as the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg.
The fossils were found in a cave that appears to have been a funerary chamber, indicating that Homo naledi deliberately disposed of their dead – a behaviour previously thought limited to humans.
The fossils have not been dated, but it is thought possible that they could be up to 3 million years old.
The fossils include partial skeletons belonging to more than 15 individuals of all ages, said professor Lee Berger of Witwatersrand University, which led the dig.
“We went in, going after one fossil,” Berger said. “We ended up discovering the largest assemblage of hominin fossils in Africa.”
South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa hailed the discovery as an opportunity to cast light on ourselves.
“There was once a period in Africa’s history where our ancestors existed in a capricious, precarious environment that demanded innovation, adaptation and resolve,” he said.
The discovery will tell “us more about our own human journey than we ever knew before” and “encourage us to inquire further about the whole scope of human existence, the world around us and the world before us,” Ramaphosa said.
Homo naledi was named after the chamber in which the fossils were found, which the research team called Dinaledi, “chamber of stars” in Sesotho language. It was located at the end of a passage so narrow that only slightly built women could crawl inside.
“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times” in the assemblage of fossils, “Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” Berger said.
The Cradle of Humankind has set the stage for several discoveries shedding light on human evolution.
“These discoveries underline the fact that despite our individual differences in appearance, language, beliefs and cultural practices, we are bound together by a common ancestry,” Ramaphosa said.