A major announcement was made on Sep 10th 2015: the publication of Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo found in the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave, South Africa.
Naledi is an African name that originates from the Sesotho tribe in southern Africa. It means ‘star’.
About the hominid
- 1,800 fossils from at least 15 individuals. Full range of ages, from birth to old age.
- They are the most complete assemblage of fossils from a candidate of human ancestor. All part of the bodies are represented in the assemblage. The comprehensive sample of Homo naledi bones is richer than in any other early humans species such as Homo rudolfensis, Homo habilis and Homo erectus.
- Average height 1.5 m, weight 45 kg.
- Skull: Primitive, similar to Homo habilis. Between 466 and 560 cc, in comparison to H. habilis 510 to 700 cc, H. erectus 550 to 1100 cc, H. floresiensis 426 cc.
- Dentition: Many teeth representing many ages from young to old individuals. They look primitive in the increasing size towards the back of the tooth row, but they look modern in their small size and they are simplified, set in lightly built jawbones.
- Post cranial: The wrist, hands, legs and feet are similar to those in neandertals and modern humans. The hands have curved fingerbones, suggestive of climbing behavior. The legs were made for long distance walking. The feet reflect effective walking. The body has similarities to the Dmanisi’s Homo erectus.
About the place
- Only hominins reached the Dinaledi Chamber. The quality of the fossil preservation is extraordinary. They show no cut marks nor breakage. No animals broke the bones.
- There is no archeological evidence showing that the hominins lived in the chamber. There is no sign of habitation. This chamber was never opened to the outside world. The route to the chamber was never any easy, not other animals could have reached it.
- The fossils were not moved by water. There is no signs of a catastrophe nor scavenges.
- Conclusion: The preferred hypothesis is a deliberate deposition of the bodies, without discarding the cause of some catastrophic events as a different hypothesis. This species could have some capacity to do some kind of burials or rituals. This shows a similar scenario to that proposed for the Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca, Spain, 430 ka). But the Sima hominins have c. 1000 cc brain capacity, while Homo naledi was a tiny-brained hominin, a creature we would never have suspected of complex thought.
- Doubts: Further studies need to face some open questions – How did the hominins get to the chamber? Did the cave have another entrance in the past? Could they use fire? For the moment Homo naledi is currently only known from this one site, the Rising Star cave system, with two locations inside, the Dinaledi Chamber (published in 2015) and the Lesedi Chamber (published in 2017). Was this species restricted to southern Africa?
- Several dating studies published in 2017 and 2021 set the age of the H. naledi materials between 241 and 335 ka, much more recent than the early estimations after the discovery (a dating of c. 2 Ma was initially speculated, close to the roots of the genus Homo).