about five feet tall, was broad chested, walked upright and had a face, including a smile that was probably more human than apelike. Powerful hands imply it was also a climber. “We know about every part of the anatomy, and they are not at all like humans,” notes 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 fossils have yet to be dated. The unmineralized condition of the bones and the geology of the cave have prevented an accurate dating, says Hawks. “They could have been there 2 million years ago or 100,000 years ago, possibly coexisting with modern humans. We don’t yet have a date, but we’re attempting it in every way we can.” “Naledi” means star in the Sesotho language and is a reference to the Rising Star cave system that includes the chamber, known as the Dinaledi Chamber, where the fossils were found. The cave, according to Hawks, was likely more accessible to Homo naledi than it is today for modern humans. Geochemical tests, however, show that the cave was never open to the surface, raising intriguing questions about the behavior and technologies available to the creatures. Hawks, Berger and their colleagues believe the chamber was something like a repository. “It seems probable that a group of hominins was returning to this place over a period of time and depositing bodies,” Hawks explains, adding that the supposition that Homo naledi was interring its dead is akin to discovering similar behavior in chimpanzees. “It would be that surprising.” The way the bodies are arranged and their completeness suggests they were carried to the cave intact. “The bodies were not intentionally covered and we’re not talking about a religious ceremony, but something that was repeated and repeated in the same place. They clearly learned to do this and did it as a group over time. That’s cultural. Only humans and close relatives like Neandertals do anything like this.” So far, no other organic
materials or evidence of fire have been found in the cave complex. Dating the fossils remains a key problem to solve, says Hawks. “We depend on the geology to help us date things, and here the geology isn’t much like other caves in South Africa. And the fossils don’t have anything within them that we can date. It’s a problem for us.” One hope, he says, is finding the remains of an animal that may have been a contemporary of Homo naledi. The fossils are embedded in a matrix of soft sediment and there are layers that remain unexcavated. According to Hawks, years of work remain at the site, to document and analyze all of the materials excavated from the Dinaledi Chamber. Plans, he says, include bringing many new technologies to bear on analyzing the fossils to help determine diet, rate of aging and where on the landscape the creatures may have been from. The project to excavate the fossils was supported by the National Geographic Society, the South African National Research Foundation, the Gauteng Provincial Government. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation also provided support, as did the Texas A&M College of Liberal Arts Seed Grant Program. — Adapted from a story by Terry Devitt
Rewarding Excellence Every year, universities around the world extend lucrative offers to L&S faculty, hoping to lure them away from UW-Madison. To help keep the best and brightest right here, the Office of the Provost created the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professorships, which have been generously supported by the L&S Board of Visitors. The five-year professorship provides a fixed allocation of flexible funds, and professors carry the title for the duration of their careers at UW-Madison. John Hawks holds a VDAP supported by L&S board members Nancy Borghesi (B.A.’69, Economics) and her husband David Borghesi (BBA’70, Accounting).
The Annual Review for the College of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.