Fossil trove adds a new limb to human family tree Working in a cave complex deep beneath South
Africa’s Malmani dolomites, an international team of scientists has brought to light an unprecedented trove of hominin fossils – more than 1,500 wellpreserved bones and teeth – representing the largest, most complete set of such remains found to date in Africa. The discovery of the fossils, cached in a barely accessible chamber in a subterranean labyrinth not far from Johannesburg, adds a new branch to the human family tree, a creature dubbed Homo naledi.
UW-Madison paleoanthropologist John Hawks holds a resin model of the skull of Homo naledi. Homo naledi had a face, including a smile, that was likely more human than apelike. (Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison)
The remains, scientists believe, could only have been deliberately interred. So far, parts of at least fifteen skeletons representing individuals of all ages have been found and the researchers believe many more fossils remain in the chamber. It is part of a complex of limestone caves near what is called “The Cradle of Humankind,” a World Heritage Site in Gauteng province well known for critical
paleoanthropological discoveries of early humans, including the 1947 discovery of 2.3 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus. “We have a new species of Homo, with all of its interesting characteristics,” says John Hawks, a UW-Madison paleoanthropologist and one of the leaders of a team that painstakingly retrieved the fossils under excruciatingly cramped and difficult conditions. “We now have the biggest discovery in Africa for hominins.” The find was reported on Sept. 10, 2015 with the publication of two papers in the open access journal eLife by a group led by paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger of the University of Witwatersrand. With a small head and brain, hunched shoulders, powerful hands and thin limbs, Homo naledi was built for long-distance walking, says Hawks, an expert on early humans. Fully grown, it stood
L&S Annual Review 2015-2016