The Homo way to mourn?

Last fall, a team of mostly women scientists led by Lee Berger announced its discovery of a new hominin species in a South African cave: Homo naledi.

More than 1500 bones were found in the cave, representing at least 15 individuals. There were fossils ranging from infants to elders. The average H. naledi stood at five feet tall, weighing about 100 pounds. They had a skull less than half the size of ours, suggesting a brain the size of an orange, which sat atop a proportionally larger, slender body, showing signs of both australopith and early Homo traits.

All of the bones were found in the same chamber, and seemed to have been deposited there on purpose, over time.

What does this mean for us?

Ritualized burial of the dead may not have been limited to modern humans. This feature, which was previously thought to be strictly a practice of Homo sapiens, may in fact be something that has developed starting much earlier in our evolution. If indeed H. naledi were relocating the dead as a way of mourning, it is evidence that this species is, according to Berger, “an animal that appears to have had the cognitive ability to recognize its separation from nature.”

Some experts in the field think it is more likely that modern humans killed H. naledi and stashed them in the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star Cave themselves. But, as Dr. Rosemary Joyce points out, Chimpanzees show grief for the dead – why is it so hard to imagine a species in our own genus to take that instinct a step further?

So far, the species’ DNA has not been tested nor have the bones been dated. These are important steps in understanding H. naledi’s relation to us biologically and through time.

Another important take-away from this discovery is us modern humans don’t actually know very much at all about our world. This huge find was an accident, and its implications show how limited our understanding is.

There’s so much more to discover out there – accidents like H. naledi that could unlock mysteries of human evolution. All we have to do is look.

Further reading/viewing:

Watch the 2-hour PBS special, “Dawn of Humanity.”

“Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa” (2015)

“Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa” (2015)



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