Astonishing fossil find in South Africa: Homo naledi

Wow, I'm kind of shell shocked this morning after receiving word of the richest hominin fossil discovery in Africa.  Lee Berger (discoverer of Australopithecus sediba - the fossil that got me into so much trouble five years ago) is back with a new fossil he calls Homo naledi.  The remains of Homo naledi were found in the "Cradle of Humankind" world heritage site, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Johannesburg. The thing that makes this discovery special is the sheer quantity of material: Two excavations in 2013 and 2014 recovered more than 1500 individual bone pieces, about half of which can be diagnosed to the skeletal element.  Check out the picture below (and if you're a nerd like me, hold onto your jaw, because it's going to drop).

That's a lot of bones.  They apparently have every life stage from infant to elderly in this assemblage.  The bones come from cave floor sediments in the Rising Star Cave system, and the researchers suggest that the bones are from a burial site.  Till now, burial was only known (I think) in Homo sapiens and Neandertals.  The place the bones were found basically has nothing but Homo naledi remains except for a few rodents and birds not directly associated with the H. naledi material.  There is no evidence on the bones that they accumulated in the cave because of cannibalism or carnivory (the bones haven't been gnawed on).  There is also no evidence that the cave was ever occupied by these hominins.  So there's hundreds of hominin bones in a single location without any evidence that they were killed and eaten.  That suggests that the easiest explanation for their presence in the cave is burial.

What do they look like?  They're kind of short with small skulls.  In height, they were within the range of Homo erectus, averaging around 4 ft or so.  That's taller than the average Australopithecus, but it's a bit shorter than modern humans.  The cranium, however, is much smaller than erectus (and substantially smaller than Homo sapiens).  The feet and legs look remarkably human, and the hands are a bit weird.  They evidently have curved fingers like australopiths, but the palm is more like modern humans.  The hands are definitely not crazy long like Ardipithecus.

Where does this leave me as a creationist?  As usual, I'm reserving judgment until I've had time to look over the research papers and carefully consider the results.  I'm kind of biased towards concluding that H. naledi is human (as in descended from Adam and Eve), mostly because the evidence for intentional burial really impresses me.  Also, the anatomy of the legs and feet are also surprisingly human.  I could be wrong, of course, which is why I'm not going to make some hasty and inappropriately definitive judgment.  In other words, I'm not going to shoot my mouth off.

As for other creationist organizations, I'm not entirely sure how they will react.  Given that Hugh Ross only accepts Homo sapiens sapiens as human, Reasons to Believe will certainly judge these remains as nonhuman and probably will dispute the burial hypothesis.  As for the young-age creationist organizations, there will probably be some that side with RTB and dispute the idea that H. naledi was human.  I suspect others (I don't know which) will be impressed with the burial evidence like I am.  I doubt that any will be hesitant in their judgments, though.

While I'm looking at these results more carefully, please peruse the following pages that explain all sorts of cool things about H. naledi.

Berger et al. 2015. Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa.  eLife 4:e09560.

Dirks et al. 2015. Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa.  eLife 4:e09561.

University of Witwatersrand Homo naledi press page (with pretty pictures!)

Stay tuned!  This is not my last word on Homo naledi.

The photographs in this article come courtesy of eLife and the University of Witwatersrand.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.  If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science.
Thank you.