In what is being hailed as one of the most significant discoveries of the past 50 years, a team of research specialists including two NYU anthropologists has discovered a new species of human ancestors known as Homo naledi in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The team, led by University of Witwatersrand professor Lee Berger, has been conducting expeditions to expand the knowledge gained from new fossils that contribute to the understanding of human origins.
The exploration took place in the Rising Star Cave located at the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site, where explorers found incredible amounts of fossils in a chamber, accessible only through a narrow chute 100 yards from the cave’s entrance.
NYU anthropologist and research team member Myra Laird said this breakthrough finding represented a new source of information pertaining to the study of human evolution. Laird said the uncovering of multiple complete skeletons will help greatly in dissecting the enigma of evolution.
“This find is important as it underscores the complexity and diversity of species in human evolution,” Laird said. “We have the remains of 15 individuals, which has allowed us to study the entire skeleton.”
The 1,500 bones, recovered in late 2013, were incredibly well-preserved and showed no sign of a catastrophic event, suggesting that the previously isolated cave had been used as a burial ground for the dead. This theory is particularly notable because it indicates that Homo naledi may have thought about mortality, a behavior that had been uniquely associated with humans.
NYU anthropology assistant professor Shara Bailey said this theory reflects a state of confusion among scientists in the field regarding human evolution. Bailey said as the exploration continues, the approach to understanding human origins will modify with these new developments.
“Finds like this serve to strengthen the view of the human family tree as that of a bush rather than a ladder comprising step-wise progress to who we are today,” Bailey said.
Fossils excavated from the site included the complete skeletal structures of infants, children, adults and geriatrics. These discoveries were rare because anthropologists often uncover incompatible parts of various skeletons, rather than an entire anatomical structure.
NYU anthropology assistant professor and research team member Scott Williams identified fossils at the excavation site and led the study of the axial skeleton. Williams said as research continues to occur at the Rising Star Cave, more discoveries are capable of unveiling secrets that can change our perception of human origin and evolution.
“The Rising Star chamber has already produced the largest number of remains attributed to a fossil member of our family than any other on the continent of Africa, and only a small portion of it has been excavated,” Williams said.
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