Bones of new human relative found in South African cave
Published 11/09/2015 | 02:30
Early humans buried their dead in caves, scientists have found, after discovering a new species hidden in a burial chamber.
At least 15 skeletons of the species - named 'Homo Naledi' - were found hidden deep in a cave dubbed the 'Star Chamber', in what is thought to be the earliest form of ritual burial ever discovered.
The early humans stood just five foot tall and weighed 45kg (100lb).
Their hips were similar to our earliest ancestor, the hominid Lucy, but their shoulders were well designed for climbing and legs and feet were human like. Their skulls are like early humans, but their brains are tiny, just the size of an orange.
Before the discovery, scientists believed that only homo sapiens had enough compassion and self-awareness to bury the dead.
Lee Berger, research professor at the University of Witwatersand said: "It was a species that we never suspected of complex behaviour.
"We thought of them as little more than animals. We have eliminated that this was a mass death. We have eliminated the possibility of catastrophe.
"These individuals came in one at a time over a long period. They were not taken there by carnivores.
"We are also left with the idea that they did not live there. There is no archaeology. That has led us to the rather remarkable conclusions that we have just met a new species of human relative that deliberately disposed of its dead inside of the chamber in cradle of mankind.
"Until this discovery we thought that ritualised behaviours directed towards the dead, things like burial, was totally unique to homo sapiens. It perhaps, in fact identified us. It may have been our singularly unique thing.
"We saw ourselves as different. We have now seen a species with the same capacity and that is an extraordinary thing."
The new species was found in a remote cave 50km northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa.
The 1,550 fossil elements excavated from the cave are believed to be parts of at least 15 infants, children, adults and elderly of the same species - and are just a small fraction of the fossils discovered.
Announced by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African Department of Science and Technology, the discovery sheds light on the origins and diversity of human ancestry. The initial discovery was made in 2013 in a cave known as 'Rising Star' located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.
In the first expedition, over a period of 21 days, more than 60 cavers and scientists worked together to remove the fossils from the chamber.
The task required a special team of slender cavers dubbed 'underground astronauts' to remove the material.
Marina Elliott, one of the excavating scientists, described the process as "some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions ever encountered in the search for human origins".
The fossils were analysed in May 2014, with over 50 scientists and researchers studying the treasure trove of fossils.
John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said: "Overall, homo naledi looks like one of the most primitive members of our genus, but it also has some surprisingly human-like features, enough to warrant placing it in the genus Homo.
Dr Tracy Kivell of the University of Kent, in the UK, said: "What's important for people to understand is that the remains were found practically alone in this remote chamber in the absence of any other major fossil animals."
Dr William Harcourt-Smith of Lehman College, City University of New York, and the American Museum of Natural History, who led the study of homo naledi's feet, described them as "virtually indistinguishable from those of modern humans."
"The feet, combined with its long legs, suggest that the species was well-suited for long-distance walking," he added. (© Daily Telegraph, London)