What’s the Biggest Bombshell in This Week’s Fossil Hominin Discovery?

Headlines were filled this week with news of a new fossil hominin* discovered in South Africa. Named Homo naledi, the new species exhibits an unusual blend of Australopithecus (a hominid genus that may have existed about 4 million years ago) and Homo (the genus that includes modern humans, emerging maybe 2-3 million years ago).

H. naledi hand (Creative Commons)

H. naledi hand (Creative Commons)

It’s an important find that’s being ably covered elsewhere. I’m most impressed with the unusual lack of hysteria in much of the reporting, which is correctly identifying this as a human relative rather than a human ancestor or some kind of “missing link.” We’re not seeing anything like (just to choose one example) the claim that “Lucy” (Australopithecus afarensis) was the “mother of mankind.” A+ to mainstream science journalism this week. Don’t let it go to your heads.

Any fossil hominin discovery is important because there are so few of them. Homo naledi is particularly notable because of the size and nature of the cache. The scientists who discovered the fossils explain:

Until recently, most anthropologists believed that brain size and tool use emerged together with smaller tooth size, higher-quality diet, larger body size and long legs. In this view, transformations in the body in early Homo were tied to changes in behaviour that influenced diet and the brain.

H. naledi shows that these relationships are not what anthropologists expected. It has small teeth and hands that seem to have been effective for toolmaking but also a small brain. It has long legs and humanlike feet but also a shoulder and fingers that seem effective for climbing

Side note: Beware of any attempts to create new “family trees” or timelines based on new discoveries like this. The evidence is very slight and must be filled in with vast amount of speculation, and the timeline of hominin development is always changing based on new data and discoveries. Things I was taught as hard fact as an anthropology student in 1986 are regarded with derision today. We are finding interesting and suggestive fragments, but I doubt we will ever have a complete picture of hominin development

One of the biggest surprises from the find seems to be getting buried, so to speak. That’s probably because the team is being cautious, and I applaud them for it. Clearly, however, they’re excited by what it might mean.

The remains–which included a mix of infants, children, adults, and the elderly–were found in a remote, barely-accessible space called the Dinaledi Chamber, or “Chamber of Stars.” They were not washed there by water, or dragged there by predators. There’s no evidence that these creatures were eaten, and it seems very unlikely that they sought shelter and died there.

So how did they get there?

They appear to have been entombed there, deliberately.

“In examining every other option, we were left with intentional body disposal by H. naledi as the most plausible scenario,” says team leader Lee Berger.

If true, and it seems to match the evidence, that’s a bombshell: a species of hominin this ancient that disposed of their dead. This would make the Dinaledi Chamber the oldest grave ever found, possibly by a couple million years.

There would have been easier ways of disposing of bodies than dragging them deep into this hard-to-reach place. It would be an arduous journey in dark, confined spaces. This could indicate that the dawn of ritual behavior is far earlier than ever suspected.

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*Read this for more on the shifting use of hominin/hominid, if you care about that kind of thing. I’ve been reluctant to change because I’m old and think most word shifts are just academics playing games. But in this case the reasoning seems sound.

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