Picture: UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND/JOHN HAWKS
Picture: UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND/JOHN HAWKS

Nineteen months after the discovery of 15 skeletons at the Cradle of Humankind sparked a worldwide fossil frenzy‚ two new pieces of the Homo naledi puzzle have emerged.

The 1,500 bones found deep inside a 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 had buried its dead.

The first surprising new clue to emerge is that after heated debate among some of the world’s top academic minds‚ Homo naledi has been dated at about 250‚000 years.

Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London‚ a regular commentator on Homo naledi‚ told the New Scientist: "This is astonishingly young for a species that still displays primitive characteristics found in fossils about 2-million years old‚ such as the small brain size‚ curved fingers‚ and form of the shoulder‚ trunk and hip joint."

The full research paper has not yet been published‚ but what this find means for our own ancestry is now under the spotlight. Our first hominid ancestors appeared at least 7-million years ago, but our own species‚ Homo sapiens‚ evolved about 200‚000 years ago. The new finding might pose more questions than answers as it throws into question whether Homo naledi is our ancestor or not.

According to the New Scientist‚ its young age might mean it has nothing to do with us. On the other hand‚ "it might have evolved 2-million years ago as one of the earliest ‘true’ humans‚ and then survived‚ unchanged‚ for hundreds of thousands of years".

Said Stringer: "It could lie close to the origin of the genus Homo‚ suggesting that this is a relic species‚ retaining many primitive traits from a much earlier time."

In the second revelation‚ the American Association of Physical Anthropologists was told that although Homo naledi had a brain much smaller than ours‚ it seems to have been "organised" in a similar way. Its skull was only slightly larger than that of a chimp but looked "surprisingly like our own"‚ reported the New Scientist‚ which also said scientists at the meeting were struck by similarities between our brain and Homo naledi’s when it comes to the frontal lobe and its links to language.

"This could back suggestions that these mysterious, early humans showed advanced behaviours‚ such as teamwork and burial‚" the New Scientist reported. Lead researcher Prof Lee Berger of Wits University will reveal more information on these findings in the next few weeks.

TMG Digital

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