Changing Planet

Homo naledi’s Nike-Ready Foot

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.

The Foot

There was a recurring comment at the workshop in June, 2014, that analyzed the first batch of remains of what would come to be called Homo naledi: The body seemed primitive in the core, but more human at the extremities. It was as though the body parts that contacted the physical world most directly were adapting to new conditions and uses, but news of the innovations hadn’t yet reached the heartland.

The foot was a big part of this.

(Illustration by Andrew Howley)

During the excavations in November, 2013, before the foot bones proper were found and reassembled, a single bone from the ankle widened eyes and led the team to expect that whatever this creature was, it was pretty efficiently bipedal.

The bone was the talus, which sits right below the tibia, or shin bone, and it had a remarkably level top. In humans, the top of the talus is level from side to side, allowing the leg to rotate directly over the foot in the path of motion. In other apes, the top of the talus is tilted toward the inside of the foot which meets with the angled bottom of the tibia, causing the leg to rotate over the foot at an angle, giving them a bowlegged appearance. (This is possibly why the guys in Planet of the Apes are such fine horsemen. Err, “horseapes.”)

So before a single toe was found, the team had an idea of what to expect.

When the toes were finally unearthed, they were found to be slightly curved, but mostly straight, with the big toe coming up right alongside the others. For anyone else who’s ever wished they could use their feet like hands, Homo naledi was no better off than we are. What it lacked in gripping ability though, naledi’s foot made up for with support and efficiency of back and forth motion.

The feet of bonobos and other apes have an arch similar to ours that runs from the heel to the toes, but they are mostly flat from the inside to the outside. Naledi however begins to show the “transverse arch” that literally puts a spring in your step. This dual-arching structure wouldn’t do much for an animal that’s shuffling with a side-to-side sway or leaning forward on its hands, but like the arches in a cathedral holding up a soaring ceiling, it does wonders for someone walking with all their weight balanced over those two back feet.

When the first bones emerged from the cave, no one knew what creature they had come from. With feet made for walking like us, dexterous thumbs, and a nice round skull though, it soon became clear that whatever it was, it was remarkably familiar looking.

The stories of its discovery and excavation make Homo naledi unforgettable, but its bones are what make it like us.


Homo naledi’s Powerful Hand Up Close

What Can We Learn From Homo naledi’s Skull?

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Bill McClymonds

    Thank you for the information Andrew.
    Your article describes the toes of H. naledi as slightly curved but mostly straight. Does that mean the toes are within the normal variation for humans or are the toes curved enough to mean this is clearly not a human type foot.

    • Andrew Howley

      Thanks Bill, and yes. The paper describes a few details about the foot that distinguish it from H. sapiens, but the toe curvature is not one of them. As one of the researchers said last year, “if you found just this foot, you’d think it belonged to a bushman.” You can check out the details in the paper itself:

  • Gene Blake, PE

    Dear Andrew, most fantastic work. I’m in my 3rd year of field work on a related project. Quite interested in your analysis of big toe configuration…it appears that your foot with that toe configuration, if imprinted in mud or snow, could make for a shape that exhibits an enlargement at the ball of the foot, an outward extension of the foot profile. I’ve recorded footprints (not boot prints) in snow of such a foot profile, have been mystified as to big toe shape and hypothesized this type of big toe structure evolving from the ape foot. I can’t imagine you’ve recovered any footprints? Also, does the foot have a metatarsal hinge, can’t quite tell from your drawings (which are excellent), and has a prelim analysis been done to estimate a step or stride length. Again, fabulous work, Andrew. – Gene Blake

  • Gregory Grant

    Based just on the morphology of the skeleton and all other species that have been discovered, what would be your best educated guess as to the age of these creatures? I’m guessing this proves australopithecus cannot be a direct ancestor of modern humans since they had much bigger brains and yet did not have such human shaped feet.

    • Andrew Howley

      Morphologically, it seems to be more primitive than Homo erectus at least in the torso, but the relevant bones there are not among the most well preserved or represented of this first haul of bones. The small overall size is also more similar to earlier forms. So from what we have so far, this seems like it could be a species that first evolved before erectus. Of course that doesn’t mean that it went extinct before erectus or any other more recent forms developed.

      Australopithecus species are still in perfectly good running for direct human ancestors, since the size changes of the brain are also associated with organizational changes. It could well be that the reorganization was related to making a more efficient brain, taking the same amount of energy to build a smaller brain with more processing power. Then once we had those great brains, we were able to take in more resources and build bigger versions that eventually dwarfed the earlier ones.

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