Homo naledi: The Newest Member of Our Family

by Connor Borden

Resting in a small crevice of the dark and rustic Rising Star cave in South Africa for tens of thousands of years—undisturbed by the evolving world around them—slept around fifteen individuals of a human ancestor previously unknown to modern humans: Homo naledi. Until two cavers stumbled upon the bones of Homo naledi in October of 2013, the cavern—hypothesized by the leading researchers to have been a burial site—remained undisturbed (Berger et al.). Not until a few months later did cavers Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter connect with Lee Berger, an American paleoanthropologist centered at the University of Witwatersrand, to properly excavate the site. Berger, after learning that passage into the cavern required one to have an incredibly small physique, took to Facebook, asking for thin people with a proper background in science and caving experience to help with the search (Shreve). The six women who were given the job worked on finding and packaging fossils in the cavern, and then sending them up through the channels of the cave to the command center. Here, Berger and his research team watched on their computers linked to cameras underground established by cables local cavers helped them lay. From there, the bones were taken to Berger’s lab to be analyzed. Yet, it would have taken years for Berger and his small research team, only a few of whom had unlimited access to the fossils, to sift, analyze, and publish their findings. To jump this wait, Berger hired researchers to assemble at his lab—all specialists in a subset of skeletal features. He required them to form into specialized groups, analyzing specific parts such as the skull and teeth, the long bones, or the limbs. As a result of this expedient method, Berger et. al were able to publish their findings in about one year.

Berger particularly treasures this finding because of its location. Leading scholars in the fields of paleoanthropology and human evolution had concluded that the first human ancestor, the branch between older ancestors and the more modern Homo genus, could not be in South Africa (Shreve). Yet Berger, dedicated to his theory and forever loyal to South African fossil digs, bore the criticism and stayed, allowing him to become the lead researcher on this case. Before this finding, Berger and his young son happened upon parts of two separate skeletons of a new species of Australopithecus poking out of the ground in an area called Malapa. Because of Australopithecus sediba’s few, strangely modern bits among its characteristically primitive skeleton, Berger wanted A. sediba to be the bridge between human and primitive ancestor. However, the remains lacked some necessary qualifications, one of which was location (Shreve). According to experts, there was no way the ancestor between animals and humans could be found in South Africa, as it would not fit in with the timeline of the story of human evolution. This hypothesis did not cause Berger to stray from his discovery. Therefore, the discovery of this treasure trove was both personally and professionally rewarding for Berger in ways other researchers could not know.

Upon strict analysis of the bones, the team members were somewhat stumped to find that H. naledi possesses characteristics both strangely human as well as strangely primitive, even in one bone (Berger et al.). For example, the caps of their molars resemble those of humans quite closely, while the structure of the roots is far different. The brain was small, with large “ape-like shoulders for climbing”, but in other ways, was very human (Shreve). Looking at the entire skeleton, the researchers realized that on the upper half of its body, H. naledi is very primitive, but on the bottom half of its body, very human (Wilford). If one found the foot fossil alone, most professionals would have declared it to be a human foot. It is a puzzling mix, one that leads to interesting hypotheses about H. naledi. Is it the link between human ancestor and modern Homo sapien for which Berger so desperately searches? Perhaps, but no matter what it is, H. naledi is incredibly important to our study of human evolution.

Berger concludes that H. naledi is most likely a species just on the cusp of transition between Australopithecus and Homo. However, just because it isn’t the link Berger was searching for does not mean the find is any less groundbreaking. In fact, the discovery of this species lends credence to the theory that the transitioning ancestors could very likely be in South Africa.

One of the more puzzling aspects of this find is how the bones got into this hidden and difficult to access portion of the cave? Researchers agree that creatures with such small brains should not have been mentally or socially capable of bringing bodies to a burial site that was hard to access (Shreve). This would mean that H. naledi understood that the bodies would be best preserved in a portion of cave completely locked away from the outside. So scholars argue that the cave must have, at some point, had another, easily accessible entrance that H. naledi used to place the bodies. However, sediment analysis lends no credence to this theory as plant, animal, and geologic remains should have pointed to that theory. Respect for the dead, reverence in the process of burying them, and the grieving period are all cornerstones of human behavior, but H. naledi is not human, which complicates this observed behavior (Wilford).

Sacks believed Rebecca was inadequately represented. She was regarded as simple because that is how she appeared in a test situation where only neurological vision, as he would term it, was employed. Oliver Sacks aimed to avoid exclusive use of this “lens,” maintaining a delicate balance between neurological and “human vision,” a reiteration of the existential approach.1 Rebecca made clear to him the shortcomings of traditional approaches to the mentally ill. While this approach was not by any means cursory, it lacked what Sacks believe to be a meditative dimension necessary for proper diagnosis, treatment, and portrayal of the individual.

Due to facts and research still emerging in this recent study, researchers do not yet have a definitive or conclusive answer. However, the world awaits continued developments with excitement as humanity is getting closer to breaking down the barrier between modern human and ancient ancestor—finally discovering the early beings from whom we came.

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