Homo naledi: an anti-climax

In September 2015 a barrage of publicity announced the remarkable unearthing of the remains of 15 diminutive hominins, dubbed Homo nadeli, from the floor sediments of an almost inaccessible South African cave, part of the equally hyped ‘Cradle of Humankind’ UNESCO World Heritage Site near Johannesburg. An international team of lithe women speleo-archaeologists was recruited for the excavation, for which the original discoverers were incapably burly. The remains included numerous examples of still articulated intricate bones, such as those of feet and hands, and none show signs of dismemberment by large scavengers. Indeed the discovery chamber was so far from the cave entrance that such animals probably were unaware of their presence. These features and the sheer complexity of the system strongly suggested that cadavers had been deliberately taken to the chamber; implying that the deep penetration had been accomplished using fire-brand illumination. What seized the headlines was the possibility of ritual burial, although sanitary disposal or panicked refuge from predators seem equally, if not more likely.

Lee Burger and the reconstructed skull of Homo naledi

Now yet more fossils have been reported from a separate chamber at a crawling distance about 150 m away from the original but closer to the system’s main entrance (~85 m). These add at least other 3 individuals to the H. nadeli association, with sufficient similarity to indicate that all 18 belong to H. naledi. This wealth of detail enabled the team of authors (Hawks, J. and 37 others 2017. New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa. eLife, v. 6, online; http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.24232) to perform a detailed comparative anatomic analysis of the species. The results are a mosaic, showing some post-cranial affinities with australopithecines, H. habilis, H.floresiensis, H. erectus, Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, and others, such as the hands and shoulders, that are not well matched with other hominins. Their crania show a similar broad spectrum of resemblances, and as regards dentition they are distinctly primitive. They are also on the small-brained side of the hominin clade. Despite the astonishing abundance of fossil material, not a single artifact was found in the cave system, despite the apparent similarity of its hands to those of ourselves and Neanderthals.

With plenty of scope for speculation, H. nadeli remains enigmatic. The big question looming over the 2015 announcement of the species was its age, the discovers suggesting about 2 Ma, and placing on the direct line of human descent. On the same day as the fossil description there appeared a multi-method dating analysis (Dirks, P.H.G.M. and 19 others 2017. eLife, v. 6, online; http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.24231.001), which showed that with little doubt that the H. nadeli association was deposited between 236 ka and 335 ka; around the time when anatomically modern humans first emerged and stone tools had undergone a >2 Ma technological evolution. To me, the only sensible conclusion at present is that H. nadeli is another addition to the 6 species living and in some cases coexisting across the late Pleistocene world, and that expansion of ideas beyond that must await DNA analysis; a definite possibility considering the age of the fossils, their seemingly good preservation in a relatively dry cave system and the new possibility of cave soils as well as bones yielding genetic materials. The leader of the research team, Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand now maintains, together with four other members of the research team, that H. nadeli may be a coelacanth-like survivor of Homo’s earliest diversification and that ‘we cannot exclude that this lineage was responsible for the production of Acheulean or Middle Stone Age tool industries’.

Barras, C. 2017. Homo naledi is only 250,000 years old – here’s why that matters. New Scientist, 6 May 2017 Issue

Sample, I. 2017. New haul of Homo naledi bones sheds surprising light on human evolution. The Guardian, 9 May 2017

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