New human related species found at Maropeng

10 September 2015

A new species of hominin has been unveiled at Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg, that is being described as a new branch of the human family tree.

The homo naledi was unveiled in front of the world’s media – including National Geographic, which helped with the research – as well as scientists, the team of excavators and government officials.

Professor Lee Berger, the American archaeologist who led the excavation, called the Rising Star expedition, said fossils of 15 individuals of various ages were found 12 metres into the Dinaledi Chamber.

Berger and a team of excavators had worked on unearthing the pristine bones at the cave since 2013. What the scientists found incredible was that no other animal remains were found except for the homo naledi. Just as curious was that the bones showed no traces of their being in fights with carnivores or other hominins.

This suggested that the cave was where the homo naledi disposed of their dead, a sort of burial site. This is an indication of their sophistication and what Berger said was a recognition of their own mortality. “It is what separated us from the animal kingdom.”

Speaking at the event, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa reminded us that we were not a unique species to this planet. “By unearthing our past we gain knowledge about our present. We’re not exceptional; we’re not the only ones who buried our dead.”

The age of the fossils has not yet been determined.

The entrance to the cave was so small excavators of small stature were needed. Berger said that the team entered the cave with the intention of finding one fossil but later found other remains. Eventually, they found the largest assemblage of fossilised human relatives ever discovered in Africa’s history.

Professor John Hawkins explained the anatomy of the species. At about 1.5 metres tall and weighing around 45 kilograms, the homo naledi was relatively petite. He said it had a similar brain size to early hominids found previously, which is about the size of an orange. “It looks like a creature of hominin that we have never found before at any other site. It connects our family tree to somewhere among the earliest members of our genus.

“The mysteries that remain before us in trying to interpret the anatomies are scientific problems that will engage us for decades to come.”

“This find of approximately 1550 fossil elements emphasizes South Africa’s position as a global leader in the field of paleo-anthropology,” said Brand South Africa’s CEO Kingsley Makhubela, “The discovery has been described as one which will force us to rethink the origins of humankind as whole. While we cannot claim to have created what lies in our soil, we can celebrate this as a part of our heritage and as part of South Africa’s legacy to the world.”

Known in South Africa as the Cradle of Humankind, the region of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and surrounding environs has one of the world’s richest concentrations of hominid fossils, evidence of human evolution over the last 3.5 million years. Found in the provinces of Gauteng and North West, the fossil sites cover an area of 47 000 hectares.