Some South African scientists have now discovered that a hominid, discovered in the year 2013, lived at the same time as the first humans, hundreds of thousands of years ago. This is the first such discovery. The results were published in the eLife scientific journal and are already considered one of the great discoveries of fossils since the last half century.
It was investigators Paul Dirks and Eric Roberts of James Cook University who dated “homo naledi” between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago using fossils found in a cave system.
This investigation secured the remains of at least 18 “homo naledi” elements, having been the latest set of collected bones found in the chamber of a cave. It contained, among other bones, an almost complete adult skull.
“When we identified fossils for the first time, most paleoanthropologists in the research were convinced that they were one or two million years old, but much more recent. This means that a primitive hominid persisted in Africa for a very long period of time, far beyond what was thought possible”, Dirks said.
“Homo naledi” measured about 150 cm and weighed around 45 kg. This is the first time a member away from the human evolutionary tree is identified at a time when the first “homo sapiens” crossed the African continent.
Paul Dirks considered that the structure of the hands of the “homo naledi” may be able to indicate that he was making tools, since in the period in which he lived there were already tools in Africa.
Eric Roberts also pointed out the difficulty they had in exploring the caves where the fossils were found, located in the so-called Cradle of Humankind, a location near the town of Magaliesburg in the northeast of the country. Containing tight passages, it is being composed of two chambers, unknown, for now, why the “homos naledi” were there.
“There’s a big debate over whether it’s a funeral home or whether they’ve been stuck there. They may have been pursued by lions or even by other humans, they may not have been able to leave. This is a region of great storms and there are traces of meteorite impacts at that time. You can speculate what you want, but for now the original hypothesis remains that they were put there on purpose”, explained John Hawks.
The idea of “homo naledi” placing the dead in underground chambers of difficult access is quite common in relation to the Neanderthals, of which we have evidence of performing funerary rituals in a deep cave in Spain, known as Sima de los Huesos.
“The most exciting part of ‘homo naledi’ is that it’s about creatures with brains three times smaller than ours,” Hawks said, adding that “we’re not talking about a human.”
Still, this seems to share a behavior that we recognize, being this “a care for others, which continues even after they die,” he said.
“It daunts me to think that we may be witnessing the deeper roots of human cultural practices,” he concluded.