An article published in the online magazine “eLife” describes the discovery of about 1,500 pieces of bones from at least 15 individuals in a cave called Rising Star about 50 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. According to the researchers, it’s a species related to humans unlike any known one they called Homo naledi. Another article will be published in the October issue of the magazine “National Geographic”. However, the classification of these fossils has already generated some controversy.
The fossil remains discovered since October 2013 belong to individuals of various ages, from infants to adults. Examinations of the bones made so far show a mix of primitive and modern features. The invidivui were relatively tall, around 1.50 meters (5′) for adult males and a little less for females, and were slender. They had brain as small as a gorilla’s while their hands and feet were similar to those of modern humans.
The bones of Homo naledi were found in surface sediments which were also disturbed over time, not encased in rocks as typically happens with fossils. For this reason, it wasn’t possible to guess a dating for them and no animal bones were found together with them that might suggest their approximate age.
On the birght side the amount of bones found is such that according to paleontologist Lee Berger Homo naledi is already the best known fossil species related to modern humans. In essence, it will take time but it will be possible to discover the secrets of these hominids.
One of the questions is: how did the individuals discovered end up in that cave? The area of the burial is very deep and that made the recovery of the bones really complex. This suggests that Homo naledi already practiced the burial of the dead, a practice generally attributed to Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis.
The announcement of the attribution of the bones to a new species has already raised controversy. According to paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley, the bones may belong to primitive Homo erectus. Anthropologist William Jungers of Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York is also advancing the same hypothesis but points out that if the fossils were more recent than Homo erectus they could be a species that survived in an isolated area.
Some tests needed to date the bones such as radiocarbon are destructive therefore they’ll be carried out only after a careful study of the fossils. Perhaps it might be possible to recover DNA fragments and, thanks to the latest genetic techniques, sequence them. This would be a huge help to understand their actual relation with modern humans.