Paleontologists in South Africa have discovered the world’s oldest burial site, which contains the remains of Homo Naledi, a small-brained distant ancestor of humans previously thought to be incapable of complex behavior.
Lee Berger, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and world-renowned paleoanthropologist, led a team of researchers who discovered the new evidence: Homo naledi, a tree-climbing Stone Age hominid buried about 30 meters (100 feet) underground in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system, a UNESCO world heritage site near Johannesburg.
The extinct near-human species used meaning-making symbols to bury their dead; the two behaviors which the world earlier thought to be exclusive to hominins with much larger brains.
“These are the most ancient interments yet recorded in the hominin record, earlier than evidence of Homo sapiens interments by at least 100,000 years,” the scientists wrote in a series of yet-to-be peer-reviewed scientific papers.
The burials, symbols, and interpretation of the findings are now available as preprints for immediate download from BioRxiv, pending the subsequent official publication as eLife Reviewed Preprints.
“Funded by the National Geographic Society, Berger and his team – including fellow National Geographic Explorers, Dr. Keneiloe Molopyane – lead excavator in the Dragon’s Back chamber, and Agustín Fuentes, on-site biocultural specialist, identified depressions deep in the chambers of the Rising Star cave system. Bodies of H. naledi adults and several children estimated to be younger than 13 years of age were deposited in fetal positions, which suggests intentional burial of the dead,” National Geographic stated on its website.
“The interments predate the earliest known Homo sapiens burials by at least 100,000 years, making the Rising Star burials some of the most ancient in the hominin record and indicating that burials might not have been limited to H. sapiens or other hominins with larger brain sizes,” National Geographic added.
Furthermore, the researchers uncovered etched symbols on the cave walls, such as strongly impressed cross-hatchings and other geometric designs on surfaces that appeared to have been polished and smoothed, implying a time span of 241,000 to 335,000 years.
“These recent findings suggest intentional burials, the use of symbols, and meaning-making activities by Homo naledi. It seems an inevitable conclusion that in combination they indicate that this small-brained species of ancient human relatives was performing complex practices related to death,” said Berger.
“To be inside the caves, inside the world of Homo naledi, is not only a life-changing adventure,” Fuentes, an anthropology professor at Princeton University, said. “But what we’ve uncovered forces us to rethink a whole set of assumptions about hominins and human evolution.”
The Rising Star cave system in South Africa has remained one of the most successful sites for hominin fossils in the world, with recent discoveries adding a fresh chapter to the world’s understanding of human origins.
The discovery implies that mortuary practices were not limited to large-brained hominins, calling into question the current theory of human evolution, which held that the development of larger brains facilitated the performance of complex’meaning-making’ tasks like burying the dead.
The first Homo naledi fossils were found in the Dinaledi chamber in 2013 by Berger and his team.
A previously discovered Homo sapiens interment, thought to be the oldest known burial in the human record, dated back 100,000 years. The recently discovered burial place, on the other hand, dates back at least 200,000 years.
According to the experts, evidence reveals that burial holes in the cave were purposefully made and filled in to cover the buried bodies, and that at least five people were buried there.
“That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors,” Berger told AFP in an interview.
While further analysis is underway, the discoveries “alter our understandings of human evolution,” the researchers wrote.
Other scientific discoveries about Homo Naledi have occurred across the continent, including the single-largest fossil hominine discovery in Africa in 2015 by experts from around the world.