Rising Star Cave is the site in South Africa excavated by Dr Lee Berger and his team. It was here that they found a new species of ancient human called Homo naledi. Now another chamber in the cave has been unearthed and yielded even more fossil bone evidence and this newest discovery has yielded a skull “wonderfully complete.”
It is believed H. naledi shared the landscape with early modern humans and probably other hominin species as well between 226-335 thousand years ago. Dr John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of the research leaders and he says this newest discovery adds more evidence that the cave system was being used by H. naledi to cache their dead. The new chamber has been named the Lesedi Chamber. So far 130 bone pieces have been found in the new chamber. One skeleton is said to be remarkably complete and is being named “Neo.”
The skull of this individual has been reconstructed and the face is also almost complete, thus, giving us the real first look at H. naledi. This skeleton is more complete that the famous “Lucy” skeleton. Delicate bones from the inner eye region and nose were also found which helped in the reconstruction of the skull. “Neo” also has a complete collar bone and a nearly complete femur. This is being taken as evidence for what has previously been suspected and that is that H. naledi was an effective walker and climber. Researchers also say that the vertebrae are also “wonderfully preserved and unique.” They say that they have a shape that has only been seen in Neanderthals previously.
The many finds at Rising Star Cave have given scientists the most complete record of a hominid species other than modern humans and Neanderthals. It is believed that the total finds thus far represent 18 individuals according to Dr John Hawks.
So basically the Rising Star Cave was a dumping ground for the dead and this has been suspected by Dr Lee Berger since the first finds were made. This kind of dumping of the dead is something that the Neanderthals also did as evidenced from finds in Spain at the Sima de los Huesos site. They were dumping their dead in caves 400,000 years ago. So is it possible that H. naledi is related to the Neanderthals in some way? As yet there is no evidence of that.
According to Dr John Hawks, “What is so provocative about Homo naledi is that these are creatures with brains one-third the size of ours. This is clearly not a human, yet it seems to share a very deep aspect of behavior that we recognize, an enduring care for other individuals that continues after their deaths. It awes me that we may be seeing the deepest roots of human cultural practices.”
So, what does Dr Hawks mean by saying H. naledi is “clearly not a human”? Basically, what H. naledi is, is a sort of “ape man” that is almost human but not quite. Dr Berger first found the first remains in Rising Star Cave in 2015 so the discovery is fairly new. This species had a morphology similar to the Australopithecines which was kind of a cross between ape and human. The specimens of H. naledi show traits from Australopithecus and features known from later hominins. They stood about 5 feet tall and weighed around 100 lbs. Females were slightly smaller. H. naledi is believed to have stood upright and was likely bipedal. It’s hip and flared pelvis are similar to what we see in Australopithecus. But, its legs, feet, and ankles are more akin to what we find in specimens from the “Homo” genus. Its hands were better suited for mechanical manipulation than were those of Australopithecus. Some of its bones resemble those of modern humans yet other bones are far more primitive. The upper body structure is primitive and more apelike than human-like. It is what evolutionary biology would call an “anatomical mosaic” (mixture of features).
Not everyone is in agreement with H. naledi being a new species. Paleoanthropologist Dr. Tim White from the University of California-Berkeley who is famous for his work on “Lucy” believes that based so far on the published descriptions and findings that H. naledi may be a primitive Homo erectus. Anthropologist Dr. Chris Stringer also believes that the H. naledi fossils look similar to a small bodied H. erectus such as has been found at the Dmanisi Cave site in Georgia, Russia. Dr. Lee Berger, however, does not agree with White and Stringer.
So it looks like the “jury” is still out on exactly what Homo naledi is and is not. From the evidence I’ve seen thus far I would tend to say that it is a member of the “Homo” genus and maybe a transitional species of some kind. Of course, with the mixture of features found in H. naledi it could indicate that it is a species of hybrid possibly between Australopithecus and archaic modern humans or Homo erectus.