Changing Planet

Homo naledi’s Powerful Hand Up Close

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 Hand

Now maybe everyone just had rock-climbing on the brain since that’s what it took to recover the bones of naledi from the cave.

But that said, during its excavation, as the various finger bones were extracted and laid out, it was clear that Homo naledi could have given Alex Honnold a run (or a climb) for his money.

The first clue to the strength of these hands was the size and shape of the thumb. The bones themselves are longer in proportion to the other fingers than ours are, and the contours of the bones show they had very large muscles attached.

Other apes have long palms and fingers, with smaller thumbs kept out of the way down by the wrist. Their hands are enormously powerful, with an average female chimp having the grip strength of an NFL linebacker, and they can obviously climb with ease and dexterity.

Human thumbs on the other hand (so to speak) are more like equal players with the other fingers. They are similar in size and range of motion, which is great for manipulating objects with precision, but the reduced size of the fingers and palms makes them weaker, and the prominent thumb is prone to painful snags if we try to swing through the trees.

(Illustration by Andrew Howley)

Naledi seems to have the best of both worlds. Like humans and australopithecines such as sediba (Lee Berger’s other big find), the thumb is opposable, but uniquely, it is also huge and muscular. That’s intriguing, but alone it’s not evidence that the creature was a good climber. For that there is another clue.

We might tend to think of a skeleton as basically a steel superstructure our muscles are draped over, but our bones are living, growing, and changing based on use just as much as the rest of us. For climbers of all sorts, the suspension of weight and the repeated strong gripping applies stresses that induce the digits of the fingers to curve. This is visible in x-rays of athletes, and it’s visible in the bones of naledi’s fingers as they rest in your hand.

Since the naledi find has not yet been dated, we do not know if the creatures lived among dense forest or open savanna, and so whether they would have spent much time in and among trees. Regardless of the groundcover though, the ground itself would have been largely the same: undulating hills with rocky outcroppings and caves everywhere.

Climbing could certainly have been an advantage, and naledi would have had to rely on strong hands to do it­. Its feet wouldn’t have been much help. They were too much like ours.


Homo naledi’s Nike-Ready Foot

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.
  • Mikki

    I watched this documentary online last week and enjoyed it so much – I hope more people were able to watch this tonight and enjoyed it as much!

  • Philip Todd

    ? Strong thumb for gripping heavy stone tools? Try gripping one – it takes a lot of thumb power.

  • Moja moja

    the article should correct one thing.
    By definition, these guys were a type of human.
    That’s what the “homo” genus is. (Homo = Man in Latin)
    They weren’t us (homo sapiens) but they were one of the many other related species of humans that used to exist.

  • marc verhaegen

    Homo or Australopithecus naledi is not unexpected, google aquarboreal: they were bipedal waders-climbers (curved fingers) in swamp forests, not unlike lowland gorillas wading for sedges or fogbit, google Ndoki gorilla. Our ancestors did not run over savannas sweating 10 liters, but followed the African & Eurasian coasts & rivers, google Homo econiche.

  • j.fred muggs

    wonderful collections of plaster replicas conveniently “discovered” to promote a hypothetical narrative of endearment to the perpetrators in the mold of global warming scam. should bag these “scientists” a handsome grant booty! LOL!

  • Sami Abid

    Well in this article we learn that it is going, the excavationexcavation, morn but sure.( I am very excited to check the 2016 naledi newsnews) . So , about M. Lee’s works on naledi:
    * the mix of both archaic and modern patterns in skeletal configuration points to interbreeding between different/polychrone hominin species ? Or retrogression? Or…?

    * M.Lee used Google earth to search geologically relevant excavation sites. Can’t satellite remote monitoring daya, as in archeology and mining , help find the natural entrance of the puzzle box chamber?

    * all papiers and magazines that write and described naledi works have some patterns incommon. One of them: no or little word on sediment consistance around the collected fossil bone specimens. Why?

    * PS: would like point to an issue that merits attention from anthropology litterature Community: in translation to arabic in some very crédible magazines there is wide occurrence of errors due to first Google translate suggestion choice and/or  unawareness of différences in lexicology between everyday language and différent disciplines.
    Will excavations stop in May, due to tornado season?

  • Sami

    How it comes that thé hsmd is tiny AND nevertheless tool wielding high potential?
    Is palaeoanthropology trsnsmuting? From fossil hunt, to DNA extraction?

  • John Boquist

    I am not convinced that all of the bones that were found are ancestors of ours. The fact that the bones are found in the cave could be that the group all died at the same time from a poisoned food supply. Then again it might be that they did place their dead in the cave. I am not sure how accurate the aging is on the bones. Have they been able to make a complete skeleton from the bones, or are they still guessing about the stuff that is there? I am interested in the facts and the other theories are not going to be able to convince me. I have seen too many theories go from one extreme to the other in my life time. It pays to be a skeptic, and I have been told to many different things in my life that were supposed to be facts and they were very wrong. After all I was told to hide under my desk if a Nick was to go off in my town. All throughout the 1970s we were going to have a huge cold spell and we were going to freeze and then it was global warming and now it’s climate change. So forgive me if I am not sure if this is an ancestor of ours that was found. I have been working on the premise that the best information about anything usually comes from the ones that have lived through the change’s of our planet.
    I hope that they can get some good evidence of what they have found there in the cave. I do believe that life started in Africa due to the fact that we all have a connection to the people from that region.

  • R. Kelley

    Interesting! Looking forward to upcoming lecture.
    Sorry about the bizarre troll stuff in the other comments. These loons are on a mission!

  • Donna cathcart

    Why not include all found skeletons, example the giant skeletons found in America and hidden at the Smithsonian in Washington?

  • marc verhaegen

    Naledi is of course a fantastic discovery, but it was no “human ancestor”: Naledi was too late & too bonobo-like. Chimpanzees before birth have humanlike feet which near birth become hand-like (C.Coon), IOW, Naledi’s humanlike feet are no argument for being in the genus Homo. And it was certainly no “deliberate burial”, but a completely natural fossilisation in mudstone + subsequent cave-formation underneath (erosion): naledi lived in wetlands, much like extant lowland gorilllas & bonobos wading bipedally in forest swamps for wetland foods, but more frequently, google “bonobo wading”. For independent scientific information on Naledi, please google e.g. “not Homo but Pan naledi 2017”.

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