Deep inside a pitch-black cave in South Africa, researchers made an astonishing discovery.
They’re calling it Homo naledi (nah-LEE-dee), and it’s shaking our understanding of human evolution. There are a few reasons for that. For one, the creature shows a complicated mix of human and primitive characteristics. It would walk upright with feet and hands that resemble those of a human, for example, but its shoulders look more like those of our ancestors, and its brain is only about the size of an orange.
Here’s the kicker though: University of the Witwatersrand professor Lee Berger, who led the work, believes the body in question was deliberately left in that dark chamber. Which would suggest that the Homo naledi ritualistically buried their dead, a quality that he says is “utterly, uniquely human.”
“This is like opening up Tutankhamen’s tomb,” Berger told CNN, standing in front of the cave. “We have just encountered another species that perhaps thought about its own mortality, and went to great risk and effort to dispose of its dead in a deep, remote, chamber right behind us.”
The first undisputed human burial took place about 100,000 years ago, but researchers are having trouble dating Homo naledi’s remains. If they stretch back further than that benchmark, this could potentially be an even more significant find.
For his part, Berger believes they will. The professor said naledi’s anatomy suggests that it existed right around the foot of the Homo group, which would make it 2.5 million to 2.8 million years old. If true, naledi would be a borderline human.
The skeleton they discovered is relatively large once assembled. It stands at about 5 feet tall. It’s legs are long and muscular, and its fingers locked into a curve, suggesting it had climbing and tool-using capabilities.
Besides the dates and the burial though, there’s only one mystery that remains: how naledi got into the cave at all. To get to the site of the remains, researchers had to squeeze through a 7-inch opening in extremely dark conditions. The naledi would’ve required access to artificial light to get there, like a torch. The alternative theory is, the cave might’ve been a deathtrap.
Only time will tell.