Homo Naledi as brought to life by National Geographic. Picture: SUPPLIED
Homo Naledi as brought to life by National Geographic. Picture: SUPPLIED

Homo naledi, our celebrated “ancestor” discovered with much fanfare two years ago at the Rising Star cave system in Gauteng, is now available for all and sundry to experience in the virtual world.

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas‚ Texas‚ teamed up with Wits University to launch an app on Tuesday that allows anyone to virtually tour the cave that only six “underground astronauts” have visited in person‚ and to “touch” the bones.

Because of its narrow chute of only 18cm‚ it is impossible for most people to get into the cave‚ while the bones themselves have only been displayed in SA.

The Perot Museum initially created this experience for its new Being Human Hall‚ then decided to make the virtual reality journey into Dinaledi Chamber‚ where Homo naledi was discovered‚ to be accessible beyond the walls of the museum.

“We are hugely excited by this partnership‚” chief scientist Professor Lee Berger said during the Facebook Live launch filmed at the museum. “And this comes just as we are doing another excavation which is likely to produce possibly another thousand fossils.”

One of the “underground astronauts”‚ American archaeologist Becca Peixotto‚ also spoke at the launch. “We are going back to South Africa and will be underground from Saturday and Sunday. We will begin excavating on Monday and Tuesday and will have four new trainees with us too. I haven’t been back into the cave system since 2014 and I am very excited,” she said.

With narration in six languages from some of the explorers and scientists on Berger’s Rising Star expedition‚ viewers can explore and even “virtually” hold fossils from the cave.

The 15‚000 bones found deep inside the cave system at the Sterkfontein site dumbfounded scientists‚ who were struck by Homo naledi’s unusual combination of features, the difficulty of dating the species and the theory that it buried its own dead.

Eventually‚ after heated debates and several months of intense research‚ an age of about 250‚000 years was agreed upon‚ while the burying of the dead remains a puzzle to be solved.

That‚ and the unusual features‚ have meant that Homo naledi is a puzzle within a puzzle that will keep scientists busy for generations.

In the meantime‚ the spectacle of the cave and the experience of engaging with the bones can be enjoyed by people across the globe thanks to the new app.

Said Berger: “We are still trying to test those questions. Did they have fire? Did they enter alive with dead individuals? Did they have tools? And if so‚ what were they?

“We now know that Homo naledi is relatively young‚ so what does this mean? The big questions right now are trying to get a handle on the diversity of human ancestry. Up until recently it was seen as a linear process … but now science is showing that this is completely not true.”