In one of the most fantastic finds in the history of paleontology, scientists have discovered 15 skeletons of a previously unknown human ancestor in South Africa. The skeletons are believed to be 2.5 million years old, and are believed to have either been buried in the cave or to have died there for unknown reasons. Farther back in the cave, there appear to be many more skeletons. Because the cave is called Rising Star Cave, the species has been named "homo naledi." "Naledi" means "star" in the regional Sesotho language. The skeletons were found behind a large stone known as the Dragon’s Back.
The find suggests that the bodies were intentionally deposited in the chamber, meaning that proto-humans with smaller brains than homo sapiens were engaging in burial rituals in the very distant past, at a time when such things as the use of fire were in their infancy. While the skeletons have not yet been definitively dated, Dr. Lee R. Berger, leader of the discovery team, has said that the developmental appearance of the skeletons places them close to the foundation of the human genus. They had brains the size of oranges and a modern looking jaw and teeth, which identifies them as hominids, not Australopithecenes, which existed in the same area at the time. H. naledi was slender and weighed around a hundred pounds. Mature males were around five feet tall.
They had curved hands, which suggests climbing capability, meaning that they were able to navigate forests like some modern brachaitors such as the Gibbon. At the time, the region where the remains have been found was a mix of forest and savanna.
Dr. Berger believes that the cave will eventually yield "hundreds, if not thousands" more skeletons. If so, it would be by far the largest paleolithic burial site ever found. So far, there is no evidence, such as the use of red ocher that suggests that ritual was connected with the burials.
Details of the find will be featured in National Geographic Magazine and in a PBS/NOVA special scheduled to air on Wednesday, September 16.
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