Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Ancient Hands and Feet Shed Light on Human Evolution

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Ancient Hands and Feet Shed Light on Human Evolution

Article excerpt

More details have trickled out this week from scientists studying the 1,550 fossil bones of Homo naledi, a newly discovered human relative unearthed in a South African cave. They provide more insight into how modern humans descended from the trees and evolved to walk upright, bearing tools in their hands.

In a pair of papers published online in Nature Communications this week, an international team of researchers studying the function of H. naledi's hand and foot, based on hundreds of bones recovered in a cave in 2013, describe a mix of primitive and modern features not seen before among fossils from the human, or Homo, genus.

This week's findings show that H. naledi's hands and feet were well adapted for both modern functions, such as walking upright and using tools, and for primitive ones, such as climbing trees.

"It shows we have a much greater diversity in the fossils of human ancestors than we thought possible," Tracy Kivell, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Kent who's part of the team studying the bones, told the Guardian.

For example, in studying 15 hand bones, plus a nearly complete hand - a rarity in the fossil record - Dr. Kivell and her team found that the structure of H. naledi's wrist and thumb is similar to ours and those of our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals. This indicates that the species would have had the dexterity to make and use tools, although no tools have been found.

But H. naledi also had longer finger bones than other hominins, an ideal feature for grasping limbs while climbing and suspending from trees.

"That combination was really quite surprising," Dr. Kivell told the Guardian. "It shows you can have a hand that is quite specialized for manipulation and tool use in a species that is still using its hands for climbing, and moving around in the trees or on rocks."

Its feet, based on 107 bones, are also similar to modern humans, formed for long-distance walking. …

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