A trio of U-W Madison scientists have helped discover and identify fossilized bones of a previously unknown human species. An international research team announced what’s called a break-through in the research of evolution. U-W anthropology professor John Hawks was part of the team, along with doctoral candidate Alia Gurtov and post-doctoral fellow Caroline Van Sickle.
“We have a new species of Homo, with all of its interesting characteristics,” said Hawks. “We now have the biggest discovery in Africa for hominins.”
In 2013, Gurtov was part of excavations at a remote cave chamber near Johannesburg, South Africa. Experts worked to identify the more than 1500 bones found in the cramped chamber. They’ve dubbed them a new species – Homo naledi. “Naledi” means star in the Sesotho language and is a reference to the Rising Star cave system that includes the chamber.
“We know about every part of the anatomy, and they are not at all like humans,” said Hawks, who co-directed the analysis of the fossils. “We couldn’t match them to anything that exists. It is clearly a new species.”
The fossilized remains have not been dated yet – Hawks said they could have been there 2 million years ago or 100,000 years ago, possibly coexisting with modern humans.
The fossils bear no marks from predators or scavengers, and Hawks cites that fact as strong evidence that Homo naledi was deliberately interring its dead. “We think it is the first instance of deliberate and ritualized interment,” Hawks said. “The only plausible scenario is they deliberately put bodies in this place.”
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