Secrets of the rising star cave

2017-05-14 10:39
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PICS: Homo naledi species

View the images of the Homo naledi species discovered by scientists and researchers a year and a half ago, which is believed to have co-existed with Homo sapiens (early humans).

You might have missed it after Buhle Mkhize hijacked the #HomoNaledi hashtag this week, but the truly stunning revelation announced by Wits University’s celebrity paleoanthropologist, Professor Lee Berger, suggests that early humans actually lived alongside Homo naledi.

According to the long-awaited carbon-dating results, our primitive human ancestor is in fact millions of years younger than initially thought – a discovery that could rewrite the history of Africa, and humanity.

Berger this week explained: “Until recently, every scientist who would have [examined] the Homo naledi remains that we announced in 2015 would have said that they [were] millions of years old. Maybe 2 million, maybe 2.5 million, based on their primitive anatomy. But they are in fact 10 times younger than that, emerging some time between 335 000 and 236 000 years ago.”

Alongside the game-changing carbon-dating results – which used 11 laboratories from around the world, six different independent methods and double-blinds so that the labs didn’t know what the results from the other labs were – Berger also announced the discovery of a second chamber in the Homo naledi complex in the Cradle of Humankind, called the Rising Star cave system.

“Adding a second chamber adds weight and evidence to our controversial hypothesis that Homo naledi was deliberately disposing of [their] dead in the chambers in a repeated and ritualised way.”

In the second chamber, he and his team of hundreds of researchers discovered one of the best-preserved skeletons to date, along with a complete skull, now named Neo.

“The partially preserved skeleton and complete skull act as our Rosetta Stone, meaning that we can now translate the body shape and form limb links with other relationships within the body, basically allowing us to see the true face of Homo naledi for the first time.”

The skull, Berger says, has a brain almost a third of the size of modern human beings – one of the facts that got former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi fired up two years ago, infamously tweeting: “No one will dig old monkey bones to back up a theory that I was once a baboon.” It’s a comment Berger remembers well.

Parallel species

“That sort of sentiment didn’t come up this time, thankfully,” Berger says.

“I think it’s because we used the discovery as an educational tool, rather than an opportunity for conflict between religion and science that was largely being led by certain religious ministers.

“When Vavi said to me on radio after his tweet that, ‘I didn’t descend from a monkey’, I replied on the air, ‘Neither did I, and neither did Homo naledi’.

“I’m trying to help people understand that we don’t descend from monkeys, but that they are a sort of parallel species.

“I think we need to invest a lot more in science education in this country, evolution is just one part of that, of course. I think that certain people use evolution to create a conflict between religion and science, but it doesn’t have to be there.”

There will, Berger says, still be those who will try to link the new discoveries with the elusive “missing link”, but they would be incorrect to do so.

“There is no such thing as a missing link. The ‘missing link’ came about from Victorian scientists, but, interestingly, the idea has survived in paleoanthropology by certain scientists who hold the belief that there is only one species of hominid living at any one time in the past.

“This is wrong.

“The fossil record – with this new discovery included in that – means that the journey from a distant ape-like ancestor has been a complex pathway, more like a graded stream, than a tree. Sometimes the crossover happened through good old-fashioned sex between our ancestors.

“What things like Homo naledi [indicate] is that our journey is complex.

“It’s not a straight line. We shouldn’t be looking to the past for a ‘missing link’, but for a pathway to human evolution.”

Read more on:    wits  |  lee berger  |  homo naledi

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