A new species of our human ancestor has been discovered deep in a South African cave called Rising Star, some 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg.
The mysteries of what Homo naledi is, and how its bones got into the cave, are inextricably knotted with the question of how old those bones are—which for the moment no one knows.
Palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger a research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) announced his find, which might be a new candidate for earliest Homo, in 2014 – exactly 50 years after Louis Leakey published his discovery of the reigning first member of our genus, Homo habilis.
The new human fossils from South Africa have added fuel to a long-standing debate over the geographical origins of our species.Berger’s gift for finding astonishing fossil caches has pulled global attention to the Cradle of Humankind.
At a site called Malapa in 2008, and now in the Rising Star cave ten miles away, his team has uncovered unprecedented numbers of fossil bones, adding two completely new species to the human family tree. Armed with their tantalizing mix of primitive and advanced features, Berger has become the champion of a resurgent South African claim to be the true birthplace of humankind.
The role in human origins of the Homo naledi skeletons from Rising Star hangs in limbo, awaiting experimental techniques that might solve the question of their age. But Berger’s finds at Malapa, dubbed Australopithecus sediba, proved amenable to a technique called uranium-lead dating. At two million years, they are not as old as the earliest known fossil of the genus Homo in East Africa—a 2.8 million-year-old jaw found recently at a site called Ledi-Geraru, in Ethiopia.
Berger argues that regardless of its age, A. sediba stands as the best candidate for the most recent ancestor of our genus—we just haven’t yet found other, earlier fossils of its kind that predate the Ledi-Geraru jaw.
That may sound like special pleading, but a recent independent analysis roping in data from 13 separate studies of hominin relationships came to the same conclusion.
And Where Is The Birthplace Of Humankind?
“What it all seems to point to,” says paleontologist Brian Richmond,” is that although sediba probably shared a common ancestor with Homo much farther back in the past, sediba itself is too late to be directly on the human line. And whether that earlier common ancestor was in South Africa, or East Africa, or some entirely different part of Africa, we still can’t tell.”
Whatever the verdict on Berger’s claims, Malapa and Rising Star have turned fresh eyes to the South African caves, and with each new find here, the scenario of our origins grows more intricate and complex.
Watch this space … and remember the words of Pliny the Elder – ‘’Out of Africa ~ Always Something New’’
Why don’t you join our archaeology tour in July 2016 and see for yourself when you visit the Cradle of Humankind?
Professor Lee Berger kisses the skull of Homo Naledi, estimated at about 2.5 to 2.8 million years old, discovered at the “Cradle of Humankind”. At about 5 feet tall and only 100 or so pounds, and with a brain only about the size of an average orange, H. naledi is a startling combination of australopith-like and human-like features that, until now, was entirely unknown to science, researchers said.
Credit AFP PHOTO/STEFAN HEUNIS