Homo naledi fossils laid out

New ancient human species discovered in South African cave

Researchers have discovered the fossils of a previously unknown human species in a cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa.

The species, named Homo naledi, has been assigned to the genus Homo, to which modern humans also belong. Casts of H. naledi fossils, including its skull, hands and jaws, will be unveiled to the public at the Natural History Museum’s after-hours Science Uncovered event on 25 September.

In this remarkable discovery, the scientists unearthed more than 1,500 bones belonging to at least 15 individuals. The bones were located in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa’s Gauteng province, in a remote chamber that can only be accessed via several steep climbs and fissures.

It is not yet clear how more than a dozen H. naledi skeletons, ranging from babies to elderly individuals, ended up in a remote part of a large cave. The researchers do not rule out the possibility of bodies being disposed of in the cave deliberately, or a catastrophic “death trap” scenario in which the humans entered the cave and all died of an unknown cause.

Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said: “The deep cave location where the bones were found suggests that they may have been deposited there by other humans, indicating surprisingly complex behaviour for a ‘primitive’ human species.” Professor Stringer has written a comment article that will be published alongside the main studies in the journal eLife on 10 September.

Homo naledi presents the scientific community with a challenge. Professor Stringer adds: “Some of Homo naledi’s features, such as its hands, wrist and feet, are very similar to those of modern humans. On the other hand, the species’ small brain and the shape of its upper body are more similar to a prehuman group called australopithecines”.

Homo naledi may therefore shed light on the transition from australopithecines to humans, helping uncover how humans fit into the framework of the natural world over the course of their evolution.

Professor Stringer notes, “While we do not yet know the exact age of the bones, the discovery of so many fossils belonging to at least 15 individuals is remarkable. The mixture of features in H. naledi highlights once again the complexity of the human family tree and the need for further research to understand the history and ultimate origins of our species.”

Casts of Homo naledi fossils will be unveiled at the Natural History’s after-hours Science Uncovered event on 25 September and will then go on permanent display in a new Human Evolution gallery opening at the Museum at the end of November. At the event, they will be alongside the reconstructed skeleton of a recently discovered australopithecine species from South Africa: Australopithecus sediba. Comparing the characteristics of these ancient species shows how humans have changed over millions of years. The Museum’s Human Origins researchers will be on hand to explain their research and answer questions.

 

Notes for editors

For further information and to speak with Prof Stringer, please contact the Natural History Museum Press Office

Tel: +44 (0) 20 7942 5654/ +44 (0) 7799 690151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

Download images: https://nhm.box.com/homonaledi (both images © Berger et al., 2015)

(link not for publication)

·         Professor Stringer’s comment article on the discovery of Homo naledi is published in the journal eLife and is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.10627. The papers announcing the findings and the new species Homo naledi are published in the journal eLife and are available at http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.09560 and http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.09561, respectively. DOI links go live at 10.00 BST on 10 September 2015.

·         Science Uncovered is the Natural History Museum’s biggest after-hours event of the year. More than 300 scientists, who normally undertake cutting-edge research behind the scenes at the Museum, will be available to talk about their work and to showcase rarely-seen highlights of the Museum’s collection of 80 million specimens.

·         The Natural History Museum welcomes more than five million visitors a year and is a world-leading science research centre. Through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling the biggest challenges facing the world today. It helps enable food security, eradicate disease and manage resource scarcity. It is studying the diversity of life and the delicate balance of ecosystems to ensure the survival of our planet. For more information go to www.nhm.ac.uk

·         European Researchers’ Night takes place every year in more than 300 cities in 24 European and neighbouring countries. This year, these popular free events are on Friday 25 September. They are an opportunity to meet researchers and find out what they do for society through hands-on activities and informal discussions. This year, the Manchester Museum will be partnering with the Natural History Museum in London and Tring as part of Science Uncovered and European Researchers’ Night.

·         The Natural History Museum’s new Human Evolution gallery, opening at the end of November 2015, will explore the origins of our species. The gallery will use specimens from our unique collection and unrivalled scientific expertise to tell the intertwined history of how Homo sapiens emerged from a family tree of different human species ranging back millions of years.

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