Looking into the face of an ancient relative

A new find of Homo naledi fossils in South Africa’s Rising Star caves, including the skull shown above, has offered tantalising clues of the cultural practices of the extinct hominins.

Homo naledi, known only from fossils found in the Rising Star caves since 2013, coexisted with ancient humans around 300,000 years ago.

The new fossils, discovered by John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues, are from three individuals – two adults and a child – and were found in a separate chamber almost 100 metres from the 2013 find.

All the remains, however, have been found in remote parts of the cave that are very difficult to access, which adds weight to the theory that Homo naledi cached the bodies of their dead.

While Homo naledi had brains only a third the size of those of ours, Hawks notes that the caching behaviour seems to represent a very human impulse: “an enduring care for other individuals that continues after their deaths”. “It awes me,” he adds, “that we may be seeing the deepest roots of human cultural practices.”

The discovery is described in new papers in the journal eLife.

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