Watch: New species of the human relative discovered in South Africa

An illustration of the differences between the Homo erectus (left) and Homo naledi (right) species. PHOTO: Caxton Central

The discovery was first made in 2013 by Witwatersrand University scientists and volunteer cavers. Homo naledi consists of more than 1,550 fossil elements.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” said Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand. Berger is also a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and leader of the two expeditions that discovered the fossils.

The fossil hominin was found in a cave known as Rising Star in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, located in the north west of Johannesburg. The species’ parts were found in a chamber roughly 90 meters from the entrance of the cave, and consist of the parts of fifteen individuals including infants, children and adults.

What is most significant about this discovery is the strong suggestion that that the hominin may have practiced a form of ritualised behaviour, which was thought to have been unique to humans alone.

This is due to the fossils having been found in a deep underground chamber, isolated from other chambers. The chamber had also never been open directly to the surface, and the remains were found alone and in the absence of any other major fossils, except for isolated bird and mouse remains.

“We have explored every alternative scenario, including mass death, an unknown carnivore, water transport from another location, or accidental death trap, among others,” Berger explained. “In examining every other option, we were left with intentional body disposal by Homo naledi as the most plausible scenario.”

Some of Homo naledi’s features include extremely curved fingers, which suggest climbing capabilities, and is believed to have stood at approximately 1.5 metres tall, based on research by various scientific authors and researchers.

This new species is said to be a blend of primitive and human, and is expected to shed even more light on the origins and views of human behaviour. The discovery of the hominin was officially announced on 10 September, and will be the cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s October 2015 issue.

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