You may have heard that we’ve just uncovered a new species of human being, and indeed, we have — Homo naledi, which lived millions of years ago. Here’s a guide to what we know.
To start off, this isn’t speculation, at least not in the usual paleontological sense where you put together three pieces of skull and a femur and argue over whether it’s a new species. There are a lot of Homo naledi specimens; so far we’ve got 1,400 bones and 140 teeth. To give you an idea of how rich a find that is, while we have thousands of hominid fossils, complete skulls and skeletons are rarer than gold. The team at the Homo naledi site has so far found fifteen complete skeletons.
More interesting, though, was the nature of the find: It appears that Homo naledi was burying its dead in the cave. To get to the find, volunteers had to climb to the back of a cave nearly 300 feet underground, and climb down a 12-foot vertical shaft; it’s difficult to see how this many specimens could wind up in the cave otherwise.
That’s a big deal in of itself; for obvious reasons, we have little insight into how humanity’s ancestors behaved and what kind of culture or beliefs they might have had. While humanity has had burial rituals for thousands of years, and it’s becoming increasingly clear animals mourn their dead to some degree, it’s not clear when and how burying the dead started as a human tradition. The naledi find would indicate it’s been going on for millions of years.
No find like this is going to be without dispute. Some scientists argue that there are in fact two species in the cave, for example, and even without that issue, there’s a lot to sort out and catalog before analysis of the fossils can begin. But one way or another, we’ve found an enormous amount of information about our ancestors, and this may rewrite how we see our distant past as a species completely.