New Species of Human Relative Discovered in South African Cave: Fossils representing at least 15 individuals may alter views of human behaviour

The discovery of a new species of human relative was announced today (Sept. 10) by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), the National Geographic Society and the South African Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation (DST/NRF). Besides shedding light on the origins and diversity of our genus, the new species, Homo naledi, appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously thought limited to humans.

The finds are described in two papers published in the scientific journal eLife and reported in the cover story of the October issue of National Geographic magazine(http://natgeo.org/naledi) and a NOVA/National Geographic Special (#NalediFossils). An international team of scientists took part in the research.

Consisting of more than 1,550 numbered fossil elements, the discovery is the single largest fossil hominin find yet made on the continent of Africa. The initial discovery was made in 2013 in a cave known as Rising Star in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, by Wits University scientists and volunteer cavers. The fossils, which have yet to be dated, lay in a chamber about 90 meters (some 100 yards) from the cave entrance, accessible only through a chute so narrow that a special team of very slender individuals was needed to retrieve them.

So far, the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals of the same species, a small fraction of the fossils believed to remain in the chamber. “With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” said Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who led the two expeditions that discovered and recovered the fossils.

“This is a tremendously significant find,” said Terry Garcia, the National Geographic Society’s chief science and exploration officer. “That is why, when National Geographic received a call from Lee Berger reporting the fossils’ initial discovery, we immediately committed our support to this remarkable effort.”

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