This Tiny-Brained Hominid Buried Its Dead, Just Like We Do

In 2013, a remote cave (as in "30 meters underground, through an 18-centimeter-wide passage" remote) revealed something surprising about what it means to be human. There, a pair of spelunkers stumbled on a chamber full of the fossilized bones of Homo naledi, a previously unknown hominid. From the position of the bodies—not to mention the whole "30 meters underground" thing—it was obvious that they had been placed there intentionally. We've always considered burial to be a relatively advanced behavior, but Homo naledi suggests that we share the ritual with even very primitive members of our family tree.

Homo naledi facial reconstruction.

An Unbelievable Discovery

The story of how Homo sapiens—that's us—discovered Homo naledi is almost miraculous. It all started with cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, who set out to find if South Africa's Rising Star cave system had any previously unexplored extensions. Since it's in the part of South Africa that's known as the "Cradle of Humankind," their fellow caver (and professional geologist) asked them to keep their eyes out for any fossils they might stumble on. It's a good thing he did, because Hunter and Tucker hit the motherlode. More than 1,500 bones and bone fragments, belonging to at least 15 different individuals, had been lying in repose for eons. The cavers brought the good news back to their contact in the sciences. The news eventually made it back to anthropologist Lee Berger, who had a challenge all his own: to navigate the inaccessible cave and bring the specimens back.

To unearth the bones, Berger would need an extremely specialized team. They needed to be experienced cavers, knowledgeable in paleoanthropology, and small enough to fit through the extremely tiny passageways. Can you say "elite team of lady scientist all-stars"? The six women who qualified for the expedition were able to piece together a picture that was frankly astonishing. Not only was the site a clear indication that H. naledi engaged in ritual burial (and potentially other religious or pseudo-religious ceremonies), but the actual bones indicated a much more primitive species than modern humans. For this reason, the researchers initially concluded that Homo naledi was one of our very early predecessors, as old as 2 million years. But as it turned out, one paradigm shift just wasn't enough for this colony of our distant relatives.

Homo naledi holotype specimen.

Neighbors, Not Ancestors

Of course, the research didn't end when the excavation did. In the years since Homo naledi's discovery, we've unearthed a surprising fact. These little hominids weren't from so far in the distant past. Instead of 2 million years, they were dated between 236,000 and 335,000 years old. That means they didn't precede Homo sapiens, they were contemporaries—cousins, if you will, instead of aunts and uncles. Their advanced behavior opens the possibility that they were advanced in other ways as well, despite their relatively small craniums. Perhaps many of the stone tools that we have attributed to our own ancestors were actually the work of Homo naledi and other hominids. If religious ceremonies and tool-making is out, we might be back to the drawing board in terms of what set modern humans apart from their now-extinct relatives.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Human Evolution

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Written by Curiosity Staff May 18, 2017

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