New Species of Human Relative Discovered in South Africa Fossils Indicate Adults Stood Less Than 5 Feet but Had Long Legs

By Templeton, David | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), September 11, 2015 | Go to article overview

New Species of Human Relative Discovered in South Africa Fossils Indicate Adults Stood Less Than 5 Feet but Had Long Legs


Templeton, David, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The discovery of 1,550 fossil fragments of a new species of human relative in a South African cave is fanning international excitement and some scientific controversy, with every bone of the species, Homo naledi, included in the find, along with the partial remains of at least 15 individuals.

H. naledi adults on average were shorter than 5 feet with long legs and tree-climbing and tool-using skills. A research team based at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits University) even suggested that H. naledi likely disposed of its dead ritualistically because the fossils were found in a remote chamber in the cave, known as Rising Star, 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg.

The discovery also required some scientific derring-do. Small female cavers were recruited to squeeze through a 7-inch crevice to gain access to the cave's Dinaledi chamber 100 meters underground, where the remains had lain hidden for millions of years.

"This is a tremendously significant find," stated Terry Garcia, the National Geographic's chief science and exploration officer. "That's why, when National Geographic received a call from [lead researcher] Lee Berger reporting the fossils' initial discovery, we immediately committed our support to this remarkable effort."

Researchers from Wits University, the National Geographic Society and the South African government announced the discovery Wednesday with an article scheduled for publication in the October issue of National Geographic magazine and a NOVA/National Geographic television special, "Dawn of Humanity," scheduled to be broadcast at 9 p.m. Wednesday on PBS.

National Geographic officials said they learned of the new species "only because a couple of cavers were skinny enough to fit through a crack in a well-explored South African cave," with Mr. Berger noting that the species' combination of anatomical features "distinguishes it from any previously known species."

The team speculated that H. naledi, with its relatively large body for a primitive species and small brain - the size of an orange - still had the wherewithal to dispose of bodies in ritualistic fashion in the cave chamber. But that's a point of controversy. The bodies were put there at different times with no evidence of the catastrophic demise of all of individuals, the team said.

The age of the fossils and H. naledi's place in the genus Homo aren't yet determined. But the new human relative is sure to add pieces to the puzzle of human evolution with the big question of how Homo sapiens ended up as the genus' sole survivor. …

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