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Homo naledi may have been the first to bury their dead 200,000 years ago

Scientists have made an incredible discovery that may challenge our understanding of human evolution – the world’s oldest known burial site. 

The find is located within a cave system in South Africa and is linked to an archaic species of human, Homo naledi. Remarkably, this extinct species was capable of not just burying their dead but also etching and painting symbols onto their graves.

Such behavior might sound familiar, as it’s typical of us, Homo sapiens. However, the Homo naledi brain is only the size of an orange – a dimension that previously led scientists to believe it was incapable of creating symbolic or “meaning-making” activities.

Findings predate Homo sapiens burial rituals by 100,000 years

This discovery has potentially historic implications. Until now, the assumption has been that these sophisticated behaviors were unique to larger-brained ancient Homo sapiens. However, the recent findings predate our species by at least 100,000 years, suggesting a fundamental rewrite of our historical understanding.

Lee Berger, a leading paleoanthropologist collaborating with National Geographic, was at the helm of this breakthrough. He found the burial site 100 feet deep within the UNESCO world heritage site known as the Cradle of Humankind, near Johannesburg.

This is not the first time Homo naledi has made headlines. The first remnants of this species within the South African cave system were unearthed in 2013. The expedition revealed a trove of skeletal remains of adults and children under the earth, including a single body with 83 identifiable bone fragments and teeth.

Homo naledi remains mostly a mystery

Homo naledi is a primitive species positioned between apes and modern humans. This ancient relative has a brain size comparable to that of a chimpanzee and stands about five feet tall. Their curved fingers and toes, adept hands for wielding tools, and feet designed for walking, have already challenged the idea that human evolution followed a straight path.

Symbols marking the graves were identified by Berger and his team in July 2022 and have since been published. These deeply impressed cross-hatchings and other geometric shapes were found on surfaces that appeared to have been intentionally prepared and smoothed. Interestingly, they appeared thought out and were consistently repeated using some sharp tool. Even though some markings appear to have been made by mistake or left unfinished, a total of 46 non-natural engraved marks were discovered near one of the graves.

These findings draw parallels with our ancient Neanderthal relatives, who used similar symbols nearly 600,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens in South Africa about 80,000 years ago. According to Berger, the implications of the markings, along with evidence of intentional burials, suggest that Homo naledi engaged in meaningful activities associated with death.

Berger shared his observations with AFP, stating, “It seems an inevitable conclusion that in combination, they indicate that this small-brained species of ancient human relatives were performing complex practices related to death. That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors.”

Researchers made other fascinating discoveries at the site

Further intriguing artifacts included engravings forming geometrical shapes on a cave pillar’s purposefully smoothed surfaces. At the center of the latest studies were oval-shaped interments uncovered during 2018 excavations in the underground cave system. These holes, thought to have been deliberately dug, were filled to cover the bodies and contained at least five individuals.

“These discoveries show that mortuary practices were not limited to H. sapiens or other hominins with large brain sizes,” noted the researchers.

However, these findings may ruffle feathers within the paleontological community, where Berger has faced criticism in the past for jumping to conclusions and lacking scientific rigor. When he first suggested in 2015 that Homo naledi was capable of behavior beyond what its small brain size would suggest, many within the scientific community met his assertions with skepticism.

“That was too much for scientists to take at that time. We think it’s all tied up with this big brain. We’re about to tell the world that’s not true,” said Berger.

More analysis and research is required

While these latest discoveries still require additional analysis, the researchers involved believe they have made strides in our understanding of human evolution.

“Burial, meaning-making, even ‘art’ could have a much more complicated, dynamic, non-human history than we previously thought,” said study co-author Professor Agustin Fuentes of Princeton University.

Carol Ward, an anthropologist from the University of Missouri who wasn’t involved in the research, told AFP: “These findings, if confirmed, would be of considerable potential importance. I look forward to learning how the disposition of remains precludes other possible explanations than intentional burial and to seeing the results once they have been vetted by peer review.”

Undoubtedly, the Homo naledi discoveries represent a fascinating chapter in our understanding of early human behaviors and the evolution of our species. While the narrative may need to be revised and there is still much to learn, the findings remind us that our evolution has been anything but a straight line.

More about Homo naledi

Homo naledi is an extinct species of the genus Homo, which also includes modern humans, Homo sapiens. The species was announced to the world in 2015 after the discovery of its remains in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa in 2013.

One of the remarkable features of the Homo naledi discovery was the sheer number of fossils found. Over 1,500 individual pieces representing more than 15 individuals, from infants to elderly adults, were recovered in the initial excavation, making it one of the richest fossil sites in Africa. 

The cave system is extremely difficult to access, which has led to the hypothesis that Homo naledi may have intentionally disposed of its dead – a behavior previously thought to be unique to Homo sapiens.

Human-like in many ways

Homo naledi was small-brained but humanlike in many ways. The species’ brain size is estimated to have been about 465 to 560 cubic centimeters, which is roughly one-third the size of the modern human brain. Despite this, their physical characteristics showed a fascinating mix of primitive and modern traits. They stood about five feet tall and had a slender body mass, similar to small-bodied human populations.

Homo naledi’s feet were virtually indistinguishable from those of modern humans, suggesting that they were capable of long-distance walking and possibly running. Their hands had curved fingers, suggesting climbing abilities, but also featured a humanlike wrist and thumb, which indicates they may have been capable of making and using tools, although no tools have been found associated with the fossils.

The species also had relatively small teeth, more similar to those of modern humans than to earlier hominins, and features of the skull, particularly in the jaw, that are more similar to those of Homo genus than to australopithecines.

Fossils discovered were not as old as initially believed 

The age of the Homo naledi fossils has been difficult to determine. Initially, because of the mix of primitive and modern traits, it was speculated that they might date from a very early period in the evolution of the Homo genus. 

However, in 2017, the fossils were dated to between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, which means that Homo naledi was contemporary with the earliest Homo sapiens. The relatively recent age of these fossils makes the mix of primitive and modern traits exhibited by Homo naledi even more intriguing.

The discovery of Homo naledi had added a rich new chapter to our understanding of hominin evolution, suggesting that the journey to modern humans was not a straight line but a tree with many branches. 

Their small brains, yet humanlike behaviors (like potentially burying their dead), challenge traditional views of cognitive evolution. Further study and discovery of other fossil evidence will continue to refine our understanding of this fascinating species.

More about early human ancestors

The evolution of humans has been a complex journey, and there are several known species of early human ancestors, known as hominins, that have played crucial roles in our lineage. Here are some of the more notable ones:

Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy)

This species lived between about 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago and is one of the older known species in our lineage. The most famous fossil of this species is “Lucy,” a partial skeleton found in Ethiopia. Australopithecus afarensis was bipedal and walked upright, but also had adaptations for tree climbing.

Homo habilis

Living between 2.1 and 1.5 million years ago, Homo habilis is known as the “handy man” because this species was associated with the creation of stone tools. Homo habilis had a larger brain than the Australopithecines and showed more humanlike characteristics.

Homo erectus

This species emerged around 2 million years ago and lived until about 100,000 years ago. Homo erectus is the first known human ancestor to have body proportions similar to those of modern humans and is believed to have been the first hominin to have left Africa, with remains found in various parts of Asia and Europe.

Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis)

Neanderthals lived in Europe and western Asia from about 400,000 until about 40,000 years ago. They were close relatives of modern humans and had a brain size comparable to ours. Neanderthals used sophisticated tools, wore clothing, controlled fire, and may have had language.


Like Neanderthals, Denisovans are a relatively recent discovery, known mostly from DNA found in a single finger bone discovered in a Siberian cave. They lived at the same time as early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and genetic evidence suggests they interbred with both.

Homo naledi

As mentioned earlier, Homo naledi is a relatively recent addition to the human family tree, with a mix of primitive and modern features. The species, found in South Africa, is believed to have lived several hundred thousand years ago.

Homo floresiensis (The Hobbit)

This species was discovered in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores. The adults stood only about 3.5 feet tall, which led to the nickname “the Hobbit.” They lived from about 100,000 to 50,000 years ago.

These are just a few of the many hominin species that have been discovered. Each new discovery, like Homo naledi, adds to the complex picture of human evolution, demonstrating that our evolutionary history is more of a branching tree with many dead ends, rather than a straightforward path leading directly to Homo sapiens.


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