New Research Out of South Africa Brings Us Closer To Understanding Ancient Human Species
GULSHAN KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

New Research Out of South Africa Brings Us Closer To Understanding Ancient Human Species

The remains left by “Homo Naledi” informs us of their use of burial grounds, tribal paintings, and more.

South African researchers continue their journey to discover the weird and wonderful ways human beings have developed over the last hundred thousand years. Their latest achievement is in the improved understanding of how the hominin “Homo Naledi” existed, thought, and behaved. Scientists have discovered that the ancient human species partook in burial practices, and created rock paintings and carvings -- acts previously believed to be above their level of intelligence.

“It’s a remarkable thing. My mind is blown,” said famed American-South African anthropologist Lee Berger and his team, who unearthed the artifacts and published the latest findings. Homo Naledi was first discovered in 2013, but our understanding of their behaviors has only scratched the surface. The new discoveries have shown evidence of behaviors humans only exhibited 100,000 years later, and the evidence left behind leads us to believe that they were incredibly intelligent - a major blimp to the idea that bigger brains make for smarter brains.

Berger and his team first discovered the new species in 2013, while working out of the Rising Star Cave System in Africa’s Cradle of Humankind, located in Johannesburg, South Africa. Two cavers squeezed themselves into an unexplored, tight entrance to a cave, and discovered the passage littered with “human” remains. Two years later, the team of paleontologists concluded that the fossils weren’t human, after all. Based on their research, the newly discovered hominin averaged 144 centimeters (4’7 inches) tall, had smaller hands and feet, with brains compared to the size of a chimpanzee. Berger had to lose 25 pounds in order to access the 17.5 cm (7”) wide cave opening for the first time last July. In 2021, researchers found infant remains intentionally put to rest, the first sign of their cognitive abilities. A lot of the artifacts have been discovered in spaces that are impossible to find and reach, indicating Homo Naledi’s use of fire as a source of light to navigate the labyrinth-like terrain. In December 2022, Berger and his team confirmed their hypothesis as they discovered remains of hearths covered in soot and burned bones. And according to this year’s findings, the plot thickens.

Video showing researchers entering the Dinaledi caves 

The team announced that they’ve observed cave engravings on the natural pillars that create the entrance to the passage of what has been deemed “Dinaledi Chamber” – the area where Homo Naledi’s fossils were first discovered. Berger saw geometric shapes and patterns deeply engraved into the cave’s dolomite stone. Dolomite is a very hard rock, and to carve into them is no small feat. “There was this moment of awe and surprise in seeing these highly recognizable symbols carved into the wall,” said Berger. “Seeing these symbols was entirely unexpected.” A preliminary report has led the team of researchers to believe that aside from the 47 people who accessed the cave for paleontological purposes, there is no evidence that suggests any species other than Homo Naledi ever inhabited it. As research continues, Berger and his team at Rising Star Cave will be able to date their findings and provide more context and understanding of our time on Planet Earth.