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Altering our understanding of human evolution: Homo Naledi

Discovered in 2013 within the Rising Star Cave system in Gauteng province, South Africa, the Homo naledi is an extinct hominin species—the original discovery comprised 1,509 bone specimens representing roughly 737 different skeletal elements from at least fifteen others.

Homo Naledi was a species of humans estimated to be roughly 300,000 years old. Skeletal remains revealed that they had a curious mix of features. They had hands, feet, and wrists that appeared more similar to modern humans and Neanderthals but had the upper body and brain size more like our archaic pre-human australopithecine species. The combination of human and pre-human features sparked the debate on where Homo Naledi belonged in the evolutionary tree: were they more like us or our ape-like ancestors?

Not only did Homo Naledi create questions surrounding their behavior and what their remains may have shown, the researchers who first described their discovery began arguing that the way the remains were found, so deep within the cave system, that they must have been intentionally placed there by other members of H. Naledi, which further raised a lot of other fascinating questions about how the species behaved, and whether it had a human-like culture—as scientists now believe that Homo Naledi buried their dead.  

Why Homo Naledi Burying Their Dead Alters Our Understanding of Human Evolution

Claims and evidence pointing to H. Naledi burying their dead means that they were creating burials and burial rites for their dead 100,000 years before scientists believed we as humans began doing so. While there is still some debate about its interpretation as purposeful, with some arguing that the remains could have easily washed into the system over time or that individuals were crawling into the cave system to die, the lack of evidence pointing to these arguments is compelling.

A study published on eLife in July 2023, featuring more than 27 authors, presents evidence that Homo Naledi engaged in the deliberate burial of the dead. (1)

Paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer Dr. Lee Berger and his team, affectionately named “underground astronauts,” have continued their work in the extensive and dangerous Rising Star cave system to better understand these extinct hominins, our ancient human ancestors. The researchers claim that not only did Homo Naledi intentionally place the bodies within the cave, but they did so purposefully within shallow holes. In addition, researchers now believe that a series of markings on the cave walls showed that H. Naledi was engraving the cave walls.

Adding markings adds another fascinating layer of complexity and symbolism to our Homo Naledi ancestors; behavior displayed that leads to extraordinary implications for our species.  

Did Homo Naledi Deliberately Bury Their Dead?

The definition of a burial remains surprisingly open to interpretation. Commonly, the term refers to a space that has been deliberately created by either excavating soil to form a depression or a hole to place a body within before covering it up. But there’s a wide area of further interpretation when it comes to the practice called ‘funerary caching.’ 

Funerary caching is the process where natural holes or depressions, such as those found in caves or ditches, are used, and the remains are placed within it. Funerary caching practices are more difficult to discern from a fossil record, but how discoveries like these are interpreted is also often up for debate.

Researchers argue that one of the discovered H. Naledi skeletons was found in a crouched position, holding a stone stool, in a depression with clear ‘cut’ lines around its edge, indicating that it was a hole that had been excavated and filled back in.

The reason why the scientific community and researchers cannot say for sure if Homo Naledi deliberately buried their dead is what happens to bodies over time naturally. In a body that is concealed, when it begins to decompose, the bones start collapsing in a certain way and order, indicating that a body was buried whole—but that can’t yet tell scientists if it was a burial. You can often find funerary behavior without a burial, and vice versa. 

What makes the Homo Naledi discovery so exciting is that if it can be confirmed a burial, then that makes their discovery 300,000 years old, making it the oldest known human burial ever discovered, and also mean that our ancient hominins were far more organized; and possibly had more culture being passed down from generation to generation than scientists previously realized.

On the walls within one of the caverns were patterns of lines engraved within the rock, and while they are impossible to date the markings at this moment, researchers are arguing that because only H. Naledi remains were found in the cave, then it most likely had to be produced by the ancient Homo Naledi. There is also evidence of fire within the cave system, but scientists cannot say if it was created by later humans who explored the caves or if it was made exclusively by H. Naledi. 

Suppose these recent findings become linked to Homo Naledi. In that case, this means that intentional burials, the use of symbols, and meaning-making activities conclude that this smaller-brained species of ancient human relatives were performing complex practices relating to death, meaning that humans are not unique in the development of symbolic practices and that we may not have been the ones to invent the behaviors. 

Furthermore, these discoveries, if true, could mean that these complex behaviors could have been present in our last common ancestor millions of years ago—which then leads to the next question of whether or not other ancient humans like Himo erectus, Homo antecessor, or Homo heidelbergensis could have showed these same behaviors, too. 

While the details of these new revelations are being discovered and discussed, the suggested use of fire, the single tool found within a burial, and the engravings together become a good beginning point to asking more probing questions about the behavior of our ancient ancestors, allowing scientists and researchers around the world to take a closer look at other materials to see if such information can be applied to other ancient ancestors. 
Evidence for deliberate burial of the dead by Homo naledi: https://elifesciences.org/reviewed-preprints/89106

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