Homo naledi has just been discovered in South Africa, and as IFL Science notes this is hugely important.
textbook-worthy accident, H. naledi was first stumbled upon two years ago by amateur cavers during an exploration of a cave system known as Rising Star, located within South Africa’s famous Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. From this, the Rising Star Expedition was born, starting in November 2013 with a 21 day exploration involving a team of 60 scientists and volunteer cavers. Expecting to recover a single skeleton, just three days in they realized they had much more than that, “something different and extraordinary,” research leader Lee Berger said at a press event IFLScience attended.
That something different turned out to be not several, but 15 individuals from a single hominin species, represented by more than 1,500 fossil elements found within a single chamber in total darkness some 90 meters (295 feet) from the entrance. Named in tribute to the chamber, naledi means “star” in the South African language Sesotho. And sure, 1,500 sounds like a lot, is a lot, but the team believes that there are thousands and thousands of remains still untouched. “The floor is practically made of bones of these individuals,” Berger added.
Homo naledi. cc John Hawks_Wits University
In fact, so many have been recovered that almost every skeletal element of the body is represented multiple times throughout different age groups, from infants to teens, to young adults and the elderly. And the species seems to be a wonderful pick and mix of both primitive and human-like features. An exceptionally tall hominid, the bipedal H. naledi stood at around 150 centimeters (5 feet) and was distinctively slender, with powerful, well-muscled joints. Its skinny human proportions and long legs likely relate to the fact that it didn’t have to support much bodyweight, weighing in at around 45 kilograms (100 pounds).
Tall this species may have been, but members had an astonishingly tiny head. So tiny that their brains were as small as that of the smallest australopith – a group of extinct early hominins – with the females’ brains only being slightly larger than a chimpanzee’s at around 450-550 cubic centimeters (27-34 cubic inches). There was only a very small discrepancy between males and females, not just in terms of brain size but throughout the entire body. In fact, all of the individuals were remarkably similar, more so than if you were looking at sets of identical human twins, Berger said. Consequently, it is believed the individuals were likely closely related, perhaps a multi-generational family.