Beginning with adventurous spelunkers and culminating with the discovery of a distant ancestor, the Homo naledi story is one of luck, skill, and perseverance. When Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter entered the Rising Star cave in South Africa two years ago, they were looking to explore new paths and maybe go where none had gone before. Instead, they found a path that likely hadn’t been trodden by human feet in hundreds of thousands of years. While moving out of shot for a photo to be taken, Steven happened across a fissure that extended downwards into the yet unknown. Following this thin chute, a times narrower than eight inches, the two discovered a chamber with an astonishing surprise. Fossils, numbering in the thousands, littered the floor. The two were aware of a scientist in Johannesburg wanting people to keep an eye open for fossils in this “Cradle of Humankind.” The rush was on to secure the site before it could be disturbed. The next step was an excavation. But a site this difficult to access required a peculiar set of attributes: slim individuals with scientific credentials, caving experience, who had no fear of tight quarters. Six young women were recruited, becoming palaeontologist Lee Berger’s “underground astronauts.” Working in teams of three pulling two-hour shifts, they collected 400 bones off the surface before beginning the careful excavation of the cave floor. Fifteen individuals have been excavated so far. With 1200 bones removed from the chamber and many more remaining to be uncovered, the discovery has been made and the interpretation can begin. Familiar yet alien, these fossils are a peculiar combination of modern and archaic characters. Tooth traits and skull qualities varied from modern to very primitive, but the rest of the body was more divided. From the pelvis up, primitive characteristics win out. Present were apish shoulders geared for trees, flared hipbones harking back to before Australopithecus, and curved fingers for a life among trees. From the modern pelvic base down to feet nearly identical to our own, Homo naledi seems to have evolved beyond its time. The remains were described as “weird as hell,” by paleoanthropologist Fred Grine of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Two things in particular stand out about Homo naledi – the complete lack of other animal bones and plant debris within the chamber where it was found, and the possibility of dozens of individuals within layers upon layers of cave sediment. The huge number of bones in the cave were likely not from a single placement event. Purposeful, repeated placement suggests intentional burial – suggesting Homo naledi were an intelligent, capable, habitual species, despite their brain cases roughly half the size of ours. For more information on the Homo naledi discovery, check the National Geographic website, numerous scientific websites, or talk to your history professor.
Another interesting skeletal story right on the tail of the Homo naledi discovery comes from beneath the roots of a 215-year-old tree that recently fell victim to a violent storm near the town of Collooney, in the northwestern part of Ireland. The 17-20 year old man found within the root system of the tumbled tree is believed to have suffered a violent fate. Though given a proper Christian burial, his 1000 year old body had suffered knife wounds on his hands and ribs during the early medieval period (1030-1200CE).