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Homo Naledi: a New Human Relative?

Deep in the Rising Star cave of Africa in 2013, two recreational cavers, Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter, were climbing through the rocks hoping to come across an interesting passage. They wiggled through the tight spaces in an area called the Superman’s Crawl, where the position of the body has to be perfect to slip through the crack.

After slithering through the narrow junctions, they entered a large chambered area where white flowstone and curved pieces jutted out. Manoeuvring carefully rather than soaking in the scenery of their surroundings, the pair set their eyes on the floor of the cave, where bones were scattered. Tucker and Hunter believed they were recently placed until they laid their eyes on an intact human jaw. What they didn’t know, though, was that they had discovered the fossils of skeletons that would puzzle the paleoanthropologist community still today.

Realizing they had approached very fragile and potentially interesting fossils, Tucker and Hunter sought Dr. Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand. Intrigued by the discovery, Berger wanted as many fossils out of the cave as possible for further study. But with the tight quarters and difficult crawling spaces, how could he do that?

Berger ended up posting on Facebook, asking for any small individuals with scientific credentials and caving experience to help him excavate. He received an overwhelming response, but he finally picked the most qualified-all young women, deemed “underground astronauts” by Berger.

With support from National Geographic, Berger recruited 60 scientists and set up a command center above ground to track the travel of the fossils. The cavers took shifts to bring out fossils upon fossils. At the end of the team’s allotted three weeks, they removed 1,200 bones-more bones than any other site of its kind in Africa. And they still had more excavating to go. The team came back in March 2014 to finish the job. They ended with a total of 1,550 specimens from at least 15 individuals ranging in age.

Berger brought in newly awarded PhD students to classify the fossils, and to many, this was a challenge. These fossils fit into the categories of Australopithecines, a species that thought to have evolved into Homo eventually, and early Homo.

The shape of the skull was advanced enough to be considered Homo. The hands were human like and suggested tool-use. Long legs pointed to possible bipedalism. The feet were remarkably human-like. However, the shoulders appeared to be structured for climbing and hanging. The pelvis was flared, which is a characteristic of more primate species, and the long and curved fingers indicated tree climbing.

With these pieces of evidence, the paleoanthropologists were puzzled by the discovery. Is it regarded as an Australopithecine? Or part of an early Homo species? Berger and his team believed the fossils were closer to the Homo species but unlike any of its other members. They decided to call it Homo naledi, giving tribute to its encountered location.

Though, the anthropological community questioned the identity of Homo naledi. Berger received criticism for his studies and analysis of the species. How did the fossils get there? How old are they? He attempted to answer the questions as best he could, but there is still much information needed about Homo naledi.

However, any fossil discovery is important to revealing how humans evolved. It challenges our current understanding of what our ancestors looked like, and introduces different perspectives. The path from primates to humans was not straightforward but instead full of complicated twists, turns and occasional surprises that make us think twice about our knowledge of human evolution.

Editor: Naomi D’Arbell, Nelli Morgulchik, & Shreya Singireddy

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