The next cover of National Geographic will feature a very exciting development in the world of physical anthropology, with the story of the discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of ancient human found in South Africa.
Almost everything about this story is superlative. The research team, led by palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, found the remains of 15 different individuals with a total of more than 1500 fossils. The excavation team itself consisted of six women (including Canadian Marina Elliott), all qualified in palaeontology or archaeology, and all quite small of stature because of the requirement to squeeze through an 18 centimetre opening into the cave system. The evidence strongly suggests that these remains were intentionally placed in the cave, which, if the fossils turn out to be very old, could represent a very early instance of organized human burial.
The find includes plenty of mystery. The fossils have yet to be dated, and could be less than 100,000 years old (in which case it is interesting that a distinctive species of Homo survived so close to the present day) or more than 2 million years old (in which case this species could be very close to the very origins of the genus Homo). Some of the physical features of the remains are similar to australopithecines or Homo habilus, and others very much like Neanderthals or modern humans. Much remains to be discovered as the research continues to unfold.
To read more about this story, have a look here:
- from National Geographic, who will publish the cover story
- a good summary from The Guardian
- a great article, including lots of information on the all-female excavation team, over at The Atlantic
- an article on why we don’t yet know the age of these remains, again from The Atlantic