From the BeginWhat Can We Learn From Homo naledi’s Skull?
Posted by Andrew Howley of National Geographic Society in Rising Star Expedition on September 17, 2015
After the excitement of Homo naledi’s discovery and extraction from deep in a narrow cave in South Africa, and the implication that these non-humans may have intentionally carried their dead deep into the earth, we are left with the bones themselves, what they tell us about these creatures, and what new questions they inspire.
These sketches and notes come from interviews and conversations during both the 2013 Rising Star Expedition and the 2014 workshop where established experts and early-career scientists came together to analyze the 1,550 fossil pieces.
Modern humans have a very large, high-arching, round cranium (or brain case), and the mandible (or lower jaw), is positioned directly below the front half of the skull.
A very early hominin like an australopithecine (“southern ape”) such as Lucy, has a much smaller, almond-shaped cranium (not that there’s much of Lucy’s actual cranium to go by—this comes from other specimens), with the mandible jutting out in front of the face.
Homo naledi is in the interesting position of having a very small skull, but a very round one, and there is only a shallow slope down from the nose to the teeth.
(Illustration by Andrew Howley)
This is similar to what is seen in Australopithecus sediba, also found by Lee Berger nearby, which while not in the genus Homo, shares more skull shape traits with us than with other australopiths. (Quick Guide: Know Your Hominid Skulls)
That roundness of the skull and flatness of the face are both related to having smaller teeth and chewing muscles, relative to our other relatives. So they probably ate more like us than say chimps or gorillas do.
N.B. on Nose Bones
The jaw changes have other impacts on our facial appearance as well. Instead of thinking that human noses jut out while other ape noses lie flat, to a certain extent you can actually picture that as our our jaws shrank and scooted back, they left our noses sticking out all alone in the front. (Further adaptations then gave the noses of some human groups much more prominent bridges.)
The small size of the skull is one of naledi’s surprises. For a long time, large brains have been considered a defining characteristic of the genus Homo. No one expected to find a creature with so many physical attributes of our genus, but with a brain the size of an orange (smaller than a modern chimp’s!). Neurologists will tell you though that the volume of a brain is less important to its abilities than the structure. It raises interesting questions about what the mental capacity of naledi might have been.
There is always the chance that a tiny skull is just from a juvenile. Here though, the bones themselves make the answer clear. First off, the sutures that close between the different skull elements as we grow are all clearly in an advanced state. The more exciting piece of evidence though is that there’s not just one skull, there are pieces of five—and they’re all about the same size.
All Together, Boys and Girls
That brings up another point though: each skull falls into one of two groups: the slightly larger and the slightly smaller (by about 15 percent), which the team members see as male and female, respectively.
Having only a small difference between the physical size and appearance of the sexes is another one of the intriguing aspects of Homo naledi. It is too early to apply this reliably to a newly discovered species, but studies of chimps and bonobos, as well as wolves and dogs, wild and tame foxes, and even human facial preferences, show that smaller, rounder skulls, and lesser differences between the sexes are connected to a selection for tameness, whether through outside pressures or the individual choices of mates.
Long Before Porches or Rocking Chairs
There is one other aspect of the naledi skulls that might give an early clue to their social or emotional lives: the teeth and bone of one mandible are so worn down that they would have come from an individual of considerable age. Combined with the implication that these individuals were all intentionally put into this cave by other members of their group, such a jawbone hints at a story of keeping a group together for multiple generations, and supporting members with impaired capabilities.
It’s almost like they’re human.
But then again, chimps have been known to do this too.
And so have elephants.
Use your reduced mandibular structures to chew on that.
Homo naledi’s Powerful Hand
Homo naledi’s Nike-Ready Foot
October 10, 2015, 7:52 am
I read that the dolomite rock that forms the ‘dragon’s back’ fell from the roof of its chamber. Before it fell, access to the Dinaledi chamber could have been much easier.
Likewise, the ‘superman crawl; and ‘postbox’ might have been much wider at one time. If so, the story of homo naledi depositing its dead in this chamber is more believable.
Alternatively, could a tribe have hidden in the cave, say during an earthquake, and been trapped by the falling dragon’s back rock?
Cerro Gordo IL USA
October 7, 2015, 1:02 pm
” it has something to do with rules about destroying bones in South Africa”.
If this is true, it is a ridiculous rule that hinders science. Typical of politicians, who’s main goals seems to be to hinder science(at least in this case). The amount of fossil used in Carbon Dating this type of specimen is 2 to 10 grams. Considering the value of the data that could be obtained, I think Carbon Dating is warranted.
I got the above information from Sonia at:
So the issue here seems to be lousy politics.
Cerro Gordo IL USA
October 7, 2015, 12:42 pm
“The summary is that both carbon and DNA analysis require the destruction of material, and the team says they wanted to avoid that until after the fossils were all described.”
There are enough recovered fossils to use a destructive method of dating. I still think the team, avoiding dating the fossils, is a flaw in their scientific methodology. Before any theories can be developed, it is CRITICAL that a date of age be established.
September 19, 2015, 9:29 pm
“Why has no definitive dating or possibly DNA testing been made.” Good question, Jean-Paul
September 21, 2015, 11:37 am
Hi Moses and Jean-Paul,
Ed Yong at The Atlantic did a great rundown of the techniques that could be used for dating, and their pros and cons: http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/09/why-dont-we-know-the-age-of-the-new-human-ancestor-homo-naledi/405148/
The summary is that both carbon and DNA analysis require the destruction of material, and the team says they wanted to avoid that until after the fossils were all described. There are other techniques as well, such as dating readioactive decay in the flowstones within the cave, but techniques like that will require a lot more time and excavation. The team is investigating these and other approaches though which they hope will corroborate each other and provide a reliable date for the naledi remains.
September 18, 2015
I was just wondering if their was any evidence of lighting in the cave? How did the Naledi see to place the bodies so far in the cave? Keep up the great work and I wish I was there.
September 18, 2015, 12:32 am
Jean-Paul, you should find interviews with Lee Berger online (try Science Friday from NPR). He explains that it has something to do with rules about destroying bones in South Africa, but also about a near lack of sediment, plant, or animal material (things normally used to help date remains) due to the extremely remote and isolated cave environment. It is my understanding from the SciFri interview that they eventually will be able to date the remains more accurately but that they estimate right now they are 2.5 million years old.
Cerro Gordo IL USA
September 17, 2015, 10:29 pm
Just a layman asking; Why has no definitive dating or possibly DNA testing been made.” I
[Good question. Further details!]
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Temporal range: not dated
Homo naledi skeletal specimens.jpg
A sample of the 1,550 skeletal pieces recovered
Species: †H. naledi
Berger et al., 2015
Rising Star Cave Gauteng South Africa location map.svg
Location of discovery in Gauteng, South Africa
Homo naledi is an extinct species of hominin, assigned to the genus Homo, first described in 2015. In 2013, fossil skeletons were found in South Africa’s Gauteng province, in the Rising Star Cave system, part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. As of 10 September 2015, fossils of at least fifteen individuals, amounting to 1550 specimens, have been excavated from the cave.
The species is characterized by a body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations, a smaller endocranial volume similar to Australopithecus, and a skull shape similar to early Homo species. The skeletal anatomy presents ancestral features known from australopithecines with more recent features associated with later hominins. The fossils have not been dated.
The fossils were discovered by recreational cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker in 2013. Homo naledi was formally described in September 2015 by a 47-member international team of authors led by American and South African paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, who proposed the bones represent a new Homo species. Other experts contend more analyses are needed to support this classification. There are some indications that the individuals may have been deliberately placed in the cave near the time of their death; other experts state more evidence is needed to support this hypothesis.
The word naledi means “star” in the Sotho language. It was chosen to correspond to the name of the Dinaledi chamber (“chamber of stars”) of the Rising Star cave system where the fossils were found.
1 Discovery 1.1 Excavation
2 Fossils 2.1 Morphology
3 Opinions 3.1 Comparisons to H. erectus
3.2 Deliberate placement of bodies hypotheses
3.3 Ritual hypotheses
6 See also
8 External links
Illustration of the Dinaledi Chamber within Rising Star Cave, where the bones of H. naledi were excavated
On September 13, 2013 while exploring the Rising Star cave system, looking for an extension, recreational cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker of the Speleological Exploration Club (SEC) of South Africa found a narrow, vertically oriented “chimney” or “chute” measuring 12 m (39 ft) long with an average width of 20 cm (7.9 in). This chute led to a room 30 m (98 ft) underground (Site U.W. 101, the Dinaledi Chamber), the surface of which was littered with fossil bones. Before they entered the cave that day the cavers knew that a scientist in Johannesburg was looking for fossils. When the Dinaledi Chamber was first entered, the sediments along the cave floor consisted largely of loosely packed, semi-moist, clay-rich clumps of varying sizes in which bone material was distributed across the surface in almost every area of the chamber, including narrow side passages and offshoots, with the highest concentration of bone material encountered near the southwest end of the chamber, about 10–12 m downslope from the entry point, where the floor levels out. On 1 October 2013 photos were shown to geologist Pedro Boshoff, and then to Lee Berger.
See also: Rising Star Cave Expedition
In November 2013, the National Geographic Society and the University of the Witwatersrand funded an expedition called Rising Star Expedition for a twenty-one day excavation at the cave, followed by a second expedition in March 2014 for a 4-week excavation in the Dinaledi Chamber. In total, the expedition retrieved 1,550 pieces of bone belonging to at least fifteen individuals, found within clay-rich sediments. The layered distribution of the bones suggests that they had been deposited over a long time, perhaps centuries. Only one square meter of the cave chamber has been excavated; other remains might still be there.
Around 300 bone fragments were collected from the surface of the Dinaledi Chamber, and ∼1250 fossil specimens were recovered by excavation. The fossils include skulls, jaws, ribs, teeth, bones of an almost complete foot, of a hand, and of an inner ear. The bones of old, young and infants were found. Although much of the fossil material is disarticulated (separated at joints), the deposit contains articulated or near-articulated examples such as the maxilla and mandible of single individuals and the bones of a complete hand and foot.
The new species description was announced at a press conference on 10 September 2015 held at Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind, Johannesburg, South Africa. A display case of the fossils was unveiled during the ceremony.
The physical characteristics of H. naledi are described as having traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, mixed with traits more characteristic of the genus Homo, and traits not known in other hominin species. The skeletal anatomy contains plesiomorphic (“ancestral”) features found in the australopithecines and more Apomorphic (“derived” or traits arising separately from the ancestral state) features known from later hominins.
Adult males stood around 150 cm (5 ft) tall and weighed around 45 kg (100 lb), while females were a little shorter and weighed a little less. These sizes fall within the range of small-bodied modern humans. An analysis of H. naledi ’s skeleton suggests it stood upright and was bipedal. Its hip mechanics, the flared shape of the pelvis are similar to australopithecines, but its legs, feet and ankles are more similar to the genus Homo.
The hands of H. naledi appear to have been better suited for object manipulation than those of australopithecines. Some of the bones resemble modern human bones, and other bones are more primitive than the australopithecine, an early ancestor of humans. The thumb, wrist and palm bones are modern-like while the fingers are curved, more australopithecine, and useful for climbing. The shoulders are configured largely like those of australopithecines. The vertebrae are most similar to Pleistocene members of the genus Homo, whereas the ribcage is wide distally like A. afarensis. The arm has an Australopithecus-similar shoulder and fingers and a Homo-similar wrist and palm. The structure of the upper body seems to have been more primitive than that of other members of the genus Homo, even apelike.
Four skulls were discovered, thought to be two females and two males, with a cranial volume of 560 cm3 (34 cu in) for the males and 465 cm3 (28.4 cu in) for females, approximately half the volume of modern human skulls; average Homo erectus skulls are 900 cm3 (55 cu in). The H. naledi skulls are closer in cranial volume to australopithecine skulls. Nonetheless, the cranial structure is described as more similar to those found in the genus Homo than to australopithecines, particularly in its slender features, and the presence of temporal and occipital bossing, and the fact that the skulls do not narrow in behind the eye-sockets. The species’ brains were markedly smaller than modern Homo sapiens, measuring between 450 and 550 cm3 (27–34 cu in). The teeth and mandible musculature are much smaller than those of most australopithecines, which suggests a diet that did not require heavy mastication. The teeth are small, similar to modern humans, but the third molar is larger than the other molars, similar to australopithecines.
The overall anatomical structure of the species has prompted the investigating scientists to classify the species within the genus Homo, rather than within the genus Australopithecus. The H. naledi skeletons indicate that the origins of the genus Homo were complex and may be polyphyletic (hybrid), and that the species may have evolved separately in different parts of Africa.
A reconstruction of a model of a H. naledi head was made by measuring the bones of the head, the eye sockets, and where the jaw muscles insert to the skull. The measurements were used to make the model, including skin, eyes, and hair.
The fossils have not been dated. The discovery team waited until after the research article was published before trying radiocarbon dating of the fossils because radiocarbon dating will have to destroy parts of the fossils. Radiocarbon dating can only date fossils which are less than 50,000 years old, and can determine if the fossils are younger than 50,000 years old.
The bones were found lying on the cave floor or buried in shallow sediment. Two fossil dating techniques—dating fossils within volcanic ash by dating the ash, and dating fossils within layers of calcite flowstone deposited by running water by dating the flowstone—cannot be used because the fossils were not buried in volcanic ash or in flowstone layers. For example: in East Africa, volcanic ash layers, which are datable, has helped to determine the age of fossils.
Berger said that the anatomy of H. naledi suggests it originated at or near the start of the Homo genus, around 2.5 million to 2.8 million years ago, but the actual excavated bones may be younger.
Tim White says that it is hard to know if the fossils are much less than one million years old or older.
Francis Thackeray, of the University of the Witwatersrand, suggests that H. naledi lived about 2 million years ago (±0.5 million years), based on the skulls’ similarities to H. rudolfensis, H. erectus, and H. habilis, species that existed around 1.5, 2.5, and 1.8 million years ago, respectively.
Geologists estimate that the cave in which the fossils were discovered is no older than three million years. Three dating methods have been tried with inconclusive results, so local scientists are working on adapting another technique; they expect that dating with this technique can be performed in 2017.
The University of the Witwatersrand is the curator of the fossils. The fossils are owned by South Africa and will likely stay there, in accord with a 1998 resolution by the International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology – approved also by a South African permanent council member of the organisation– “strongly recommending that original hominid fossils not be transported beyond the boundaries of the country of origin, unless there are compelling scientific reasons which must include the demonstration that the proposed investigations cannot proceed in the forseeable [sic] future in the country of origin”.
The research team proposes the bones represent a new species, naledi in the genus Homo; other experts contend further analyses are needed to support this classification.
Paleoanthropologist Tim D. White said the significance of this discovery is unknown until dating has been completed and additional anatomical comparison with previously known fossils has been done.
Rick Potts said that without an age there is no way to judge the evolutionary significance of this find. He stated that “it’s hard to know without a date whether it’s from that period, as one of those experiments that then went nowhere, or whether it’s in fact much less than one million years old. In that case, we could be talking about something that also didn’t go anywhere and was just an isolated, probably very small population that persisted for a long time in splendid isolation.”
New York University anthropologist Susan Anton stated that even after dating, experts will likely spend many years striving to put these fossils in the proper context because there is no consensus in paleoanthropology about exactly how such comparisons are used to define the genus Homo. “Some would argue that striding bipedalism is a defining feature, so that being Homo means using a specific way of moving around the environment. Other scholars may look more to cranial characteristics as Homo family features.”
Bernard Wood, a paleoanthropologist at the George Washington University, agrees the remains represent a new species, but thinks the bones may represent a relict population that may have evolved in near isolation in South Africa, similar to another relict population, a small-brained species of Homo floresiensis from the island of Flores in Indonesia.
With the number of individuals, and the sexes and age groups represented, scientists consider the find to be the richest assemblage of associated fossil hominins ever discovered in Africa, and aside from the Sima de los Huesos collection and later Neanderthal and modern human samples, it (the excavation site) has the most comprehensive representation of skeletal elements across the lifespan, and from multiple individuals, in the hominin fossil record.
Jeffrey H. Schwartz, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, argues that the material is too varied to represent a single species.
Comparisons to H. erectus
Paleoanthopologist Tim D. White thinks that, based on the published descriptions, the fossils belong to a primitive Homo erectus. Anthropologist Chris Stringer also stated that the fossils look most similar to the small-bodied examples of Homo erectus from Dmanisi in Georgia, which have been dated at ∼1.8 million years old. Berger rejected the possibility of the fossils representing H. erectus at the announcement news conference.
Deliberate placement of bodies hypotheses
There are some indications the individuals may have been deliberately placed in the cave near the time of their death, and experts state more evidence is needed to support this hypothesis.
Anthropologist John D. Hawks, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was a member of the team, stated that the scientific facts are that all the bones recovered are hominid, except for those of one owl; there are no signs of predation, and there is no predator that accumulates only hominids this way; the bones did not accumulate there all at once. There is no evidence of rocks or sediment having dropped into the cave from any opening in the surface; no evidence of water flowing into the cave carrying the bones into the cave. Hawks concluded that the best hypothesis is that the bodies were deliberately placed in the cave after death, by other members of the species.
Dirks et al. say that “Mono-specific assemblages have been described from Tertiary and Mesozoic vertebrate fossil sites (…), linked to catastrophic events (…) Among deposits of non H. sapiens hominins, where evidence of catastrophic events is lacking, mono-specific assemblages have been associated typically with deliberate cultural deposition or burial”. They stated that there is no evidence a catastrophe placed the bodies in the cave, and that the bodies were deliberately placed in cave.
William Jungers, chair of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University, does not dispute that the H. naledi bones belong in the genus Homo and were likely deposited deliberately, but he cautions against trying to argue for “complex social organization and symbolic behaviors.” He suggests that “Dumping conspecifics down a hole may be better than letting them decay around you.” He speculates that in the past there may have been another, easier, way to access the chamber where the bones were found.
Carol Ward, professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University of Missouri, is also skeptical of the intentional burial explanation and asked, “If it’s really that hard to get to the cave, how do you get to that long dark cave carrying your dead grandmother?”
Berger thinks that deliberate disposal of bodies within the intricate cave system would have required the species members to find their way through total darkness and back again, and he speculates that this would have required light in the form of torches or fires lit at intervals.
Berger et al. suggest that “these individuals were capable of ritual behaviour”. They speculate the placing of dead bodies in the cave was a ritualistic behaviour, a sign of symbolic thought. “Ritual” here means an intentional and repeated practice (disposing of dead bodies in the cave), and not implying any type of religious ritual. Ritualistic behavior has been generally considered to have emerged among Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. The oldest confirmed Neanderthal burial is 100,000 years ago.
Rick Potts noted:
“There is no evidence of material culture, like tools, or any evidence any kind of symbolic ritual that we almost always associated with burial….These bodies seem to have simply been dropped down a hole and disposed of.”
Research article Dirks et al. (2015) states:
“Every previously known case of cultural deposition has been attributed to species of the genus Homo with cranial capacities (brain size) near the modern human range, and unlike the Dinaledi assemblage, each of these hominin associated occurrences also contains at least some medium- to large-sized, non-hominin fauna.”
William Jungers has raised similar concerns regarding the hypothesis.
Science writer Michael Shermer suggests considering homicide, war, and even sacrifice as the cause of death, but John D. Hawks, one of the scientists who categorized and analyzed the fossils, notes that there is no evidence whatsoever for a violent death among the bodies.
Palaeontologists Tim White and Christoph Zollikofer think that the fossils were excavated too fast to protect them from damage, in a desire to get publicity, and that the findings were not examined and peer-reviewed sufficiently before publishing. Lee Berger disputes these opinions and considers that the openness of the excavation, the analysis, publishing and availability of the fossils used valid methods.
Further information: Dawn of Humanity
A PBS NOVA National Geographic documentary Dawn of Humanity, describing the discovery of H. naledi, was posted online on 10 September 2015, and broadcast nationwide in the United States on 16 September 2015. According to archeologist K. Kris Hirst, the Dawn of Humanity documentary film provides “a rich context for the discovery [of the fossils of Homo naledi], setting the historical and evolutionary background so that viewers can understand the significance of the discovery.”
The National Geographic Society has videos on its website describing, explaining and showing different phases of the discovery, the scientists, the six women researchers, excavation of the fossils during a two-year period, and the process of making a model of a head of H. naledi from the fossils.
Comparison of skull features of Homo naledi and other early human species.
Fossil hand (palm and dorsum) of H. naledi
Fossil skull of H. naledi
Fossil foot of H. naledi – dorsal (A); medial (B); (C) arch – Scale = 10 cm (3.9 in)
List of fossil sites
List of human evolution fossils
Timeline of human evolution
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40.^ Jump up to: a b editor, Robin McKie Observer science. “Scientist who found new human species accused of playing fast and loose with the truth”. the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-10-25.
41.Jump up ^ “Archaeology’s Disputed Genius — NOVA Next | PBS”. NOVA Next. Retrieved 2015-10-25.
42.Jump up ^ Staff. “Dawn of Humanity”. PBS. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
43.Jump up ^ Hirst, K. Kris (2015). “The Dawn of Humanity – Newly Discovered Homo Naledi Video Review – Accessible Science on the Rising Star Paleolithic Site”. About.com. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
44.Jump up ^ Staff (10 September 2015). “New Human Ancestor Discovered: Homo naledi (Exclusive Video)”. National Geographic Society. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
45.Jump up ^ Bryner, Jeanna (10 September 2015). “In Photos: New human Relative Shakes Up Our family Tree”. LiveScience. Retrieved 16 September 2015.
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This page was last modified on 13 January 2016, at 11:22.