Arguably, the most famous hominid fossil found is that of “Lucy,” who is classified as Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy is the most complete A. afarensis fossil to be found and the oldest (3.2 million years old). While Lucy remains the oldest A. afarensis in record, a new species of hominin has been discovered near Johannesburg, South Africa which could be the proverbial “missing link.”
The story began when two spelunkers took the path less traveled in 2013. The spelunkers knew an anthropologist looking for fossils and thought that perhaps, although highly unlikely, they would come across some fossils to present to their anthropologist friend if they ventured into more remote areas of the cave. Much to everyone’s surprise, the two found fossilized remains in an awfully secluded and narrow area of the cave. The spelunkers, Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter, traversed past a narrow chute called Superman’s Crawl, which is less than 10 inches wide in some areas. They then had to climb over a ridge called the Dragon’s Back and shimmy down another narrow chute to find the chamber which held the remains.
The chamber, known as Star Chamber, held the fossils of at least 15 individuals. While this may just sound like another neat discovery of bones, it is tremendous because of the particular fossils found. The fossils, named Homo naledi by the scientists studying them, may be the earliest hominin fossils. In other words, the fossils may be those of our earliest human ancestors as they are dated to be about 2 million years old. The specimens were named after the name of the chamber they were found in. Naledi is the Sotho word for star.
Lee Berger, the American paleoanthropologist leading the excavation, and his team believe that H. naledi may hold the key to early human evolution. Berger explains that the H. naledi fossils show some interesting characteristics. The jaws and teeth of H. naledi have a mix of primitive and humanlike features while its lower body displays more humanlike characteristics. The lower body of H. naledi indicates that it walked on two legs and had a long stride. These mixed characteristics perplexed scientists.
What was even more baffling was how the fossils managed to be left in such a secluded area and why there weren’t any faunal remains found along with them. The only non-hominin remains found in the entire lot were a few bird bones found at the very top layer of dirt. The lack of animal bones and tools, along with other clues, suggests that H. naledi weren’t living in the cave, but may have been depositing individuals into the cave. Berger and his team believe that the hominins were performing rituals for the dead.
Berger says, “The message we’re getting is from an animal right on the cusp of the transition from Australopithecus to Homo.” The hominin may just be a key to understanding the complex story of human evolution.