It was long thought that, at least for the last several hundreds of thousands of years or so, Homo sapiens had been the only distinctive variety of hominid in existence on planet Earth.
However, new archaeological and anthropological evidence shows that as recently (geologically speaking) as 236,000 years ago, our human ancestors had some remarkably unique cousins… or competition, depending on how one looks at it.
South African scientists have now confirmed that a distinctive species, dubbed Homo naledi, had been represented in remains recovered from ancient caves near Johannesburg, Gauteng Province, in 2013. While physically smaller and differing in appearance from homo sapiens, these ancient, more primitive humans would likely have lived alongside our ancient African ancestors.
On May 9th, studies appearing in the journal eLife described the discoveries from South Africa’s Rising Star cave system, which contained one of the most complete instances of skeletal remains of the extinct Homo naledi.
However, perhaps of even greater interest to the anthropological community had been indications suggestive that Homo naledi had buried their dead, based on discoveries noted at a second cave in the area where remains were also discovered. With more than a single instance of apparent burial now on record, paleoanthropologists involved with the research believe this is a clear indication that Homo nadeli did indeed engage in ancient burial practices.
In total, three separate studies were published this week by a team led by Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, USA Today reported.
It is a humbling discovery indeed; it is one among many that, within the last few years, have contributed to reshaping the archaeological community’s expectations about ancient humans. Discoveries in China during the late 1970s (later confirmed in 2015) suggest the existence of a separate species of humans, having the features of both modern and archaic (neanderthal, Heidelberg man, etc) humans.
Known today as the Red Deer cave people, opinions remain mixed as to whether this was indeed a distinct species, the implications of which would be fascinating indeed. After all, the Red Deer Cave people, unlike the African Homo naledi, are believed to have lived as recently as 11,500 years ago. Although there is no evidence, genetic or otherwise, that the Red Deer Cave people contributed to gene pools of modern humans, the archaeological evidence for the existence, and their possible contemporaneity with the Clovis culture in America, is indeed thought provoking, if not groundbreaking altogether.
Recognition of discoveries like these do contribute to the idea, however unlikely, that there might have been other Homo species that have existed alongside modern humans throughout time. On the extremely unlikely side of things, of course, is the chance that something along the lines of the long-fabled Orang Pendek, or some similar variation of the token “relic hominin”, which many believe, or at least hope, to have persisted into more recent times.
The aforementioned Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, who led the studies regarding Homo naledi in Africa, told USA Today that, “This is a humbling discovery for science. It’s reminding us that the fossil record can hide things… we can never assume that what we have tells the whole story.”
Indeed, there will likely be other fossil discoveries in the future that continue to reshape what we thought we’ve known about human history, and our ancient family tree.