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Meet Homo naledi - your newly discovered ancient human relative

This month, the Museum will display fossil casts of a new ancient human species. Bones from at least 15 individuals were found deep in a South African cave.

An international team of researchers identified the new species of ancient human from more than 1,500 fossils discovered in a remote cave location in South Africa's Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

It's the largest such find ever made on the African continent, and scientists say it could shake-up our understanding of the origins and diversity of our human lineage.

A fossil mosaic

The new species, Homo naledi, presents the scientific community with a conundrum, says Museum human origins expert Professor Chris Stringer:

'Homo naledi shares some traits with modern humans, including the shape of its hands, wrists and feet. But its small brain and the shape of its upper body are more reminiscent of the pre-human australopithecines and the very early human species Homo habilis.'

Star specimens coming to the Museum

H. naledi was uncovered in a series of caves known as the Rising Star system, by a team from the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African Department of Science and Technology.

The species is named after its discovery site - naledi means 'star' in the local Sotho language.

Casts of H. naledi skull, hand and jawbone fossils will be unveiled to the public at the Natural History Museum’s Science Uncovered night on Friday 25 September 2015, and will then go on display in our new Human Evolution gallery, opening later this year.

Adding to the mystery

One reason scientists are excited about H. naledi is that the fossils were found 80 metres deep within the cave system - an area that would have been in constant darkness.

Prof Stringer, who has written a comment piece in eLife accompanying the research, says 'the deep cave location suggests that the bones may have been deposited there by other humans'.

Such behaviour was previously thought limited to modern humans and Neanderthals, and Prof Stringer adds that the researchers 'recognise that the intentional disposal of the dead bodies is a surprisingly complex behaviour for a creature with a brain no bigger than a gorilla'.

Multiple views of Homo naledi skull and jaw fragments

Multiple views of Homo naledi skull and jaw fragments. The skull of this species shows some primitive features, such as a small brain volume. © Berger et al (2015). eLife

Dating problems

The age of the fossils is still unknown, and it's conceivable that they could be dated to more than two million years ago, or as recently as the last 100,000 years.

'Based on its features, H. naledi could be one of the earliest species of human yet discovered,' says Prof Stringer.

But even without an age for the fossils, Prof Stringer says 'the mixture of traits of H. naledi highlights once again the complexity of the human family tree and the need for ongoing research to understand the history and ultimate origins of our species'.

Your chance to see

Casts of H. naledi fossils will be on display at the Museum’s Science Uncovered night, alongside the reconstructed skeleton of the pre-human species Australopithecus sediba.

Visitors will also be able to talk to Museum human origins researchers and other scientists about their work, and see little-known highlights from the Museum’s collection of 80 million specimens.

Later this year, the H. naledi casts will go on display with other important specimens from the history of our species in our new Human Evolution gallery.