A huge haul of bones found in a small, dark chamber at the back of a cave in South Africa may be the remnants of a new species of ancient human relative.
Explorers discovered the bones after squeezing through a fissure high up in the rear wall of the Rising Star cave, 50km from Johannesburg, before descending down a long, narrow chute to the chamber floor 40 metres beneath the surface.
The women recovered more than 1500 pieces of bone belonging to at least 15 individuals. The remains appear to be infants, juveniles and one very old adult. Thousands more pieces of bone are still in the chamber, smothered in the soft dirt that covers the ground.
The leaders of the National Geographic-funded project believe the bones – as yet undated – represent a new species of ancient human relative.
They have named the creature –Homo naledi. Where naledi means “star” in Sesotho, a local South African language.
But other experts on human origins say the claim is unjustified, at least on the evidence gathered so far. The bones, they argue, look strikingly similar to those of early Homo erectus, a forerunner of modern humans who wandered southern Africa 1.5 million years ago.
Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist has described the slender, small-brained creatures as “long-legged”, “pinheaded” and “gangly”. The males stood about five feet tall, with females a little shorter.
Measurements of the bones show that the creature has a curious blend of ancient ape and modern human-like features.
Its brain is tiny, the size of a gorilla’s. Its teeth are small and simple. The thorax is primitive and ape-like, but its hands more modern, their shape well-suited to making basic tools. The feet and ankles are built for walking upright, but its fingers are curved, a feature seen in apes that spend much of their time in the trees.
The findings are reported in two papers published in the online journal e-Life. (Guardian UK)