On May 9th, Lee Berger and colleagues published three new papers on Homo naledi, the most recent South African hominin fossil find to make media waves. The original H. naledi fossil material was discovered in 2013 by two cavers working with Berger; it comes from the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system, from which it takes its species name (Berger et al. 2015). The first H. naledi discovery was remarkable because there are at least 15 individuals (from juveniles to adults of both sexes) represented in the assemblage and there are often multiple copies of each skeletal element present, which allows paleoanthropologists to look at variation within the species, and to see how it grew and developed. In total, there are about 1550 hominin bones and teeth in the assemblage – the largest single species assemblage found anywhere in Africa (Berger et al. 2015).
The three new articles covered the discovery of additional skeletal material (Hawks et al. 2017) and the age of the fossils (which had been a major source of speculation) (Dirks et al. 2017), and proposed a hypothesis for understanding Pleistocene hominin diversity in subequatorial Africa as part of a larger mammalian biogeographic pattern (Berger et al. 2017).
The new fossil material comes from a second chamber within the Rising Star system, the Lesedi Chamber, and represents at least three individuals (though in actuality the material likely comes from more than three individuals, based on where the bones were recovered from within the Chamber). The most spectacular of these remains is a relatively complete skull with associated skeletal material; the researchers have named this individual Neo. The new material looks a lot like the previously discovered H. naledi bones and teeth, and also includes both adult and juvenile material. The major thing that differentiates the Lesedi Chamber finds from the Dinaledi Chamber finds is that the Lesedi Chamber also contains animal skeletal material (Hawks et al. 2017).
The paper on the age of the fossils used several different methods (including dating geological features of the cave itself as well as directly dating some of the fossil teeth) to produce an age range for the material of 236,000-335,000 years old (Dirks et al. 2017). This means that the material is later Middle Pleistocene in age, much younger than would have been predicted based on looking at features of the skull and skeleton (like brain size).
In a previous paper, Hawks and Berger (2016) discussed what three different hypothesized ages (including a scenario that does match the new date) for the original H. naledi material would mean for its place in human evolution, and they follow up on this in the third new paper – now that we have a date, what does it mean? The date is younger than the first appearance of Homo erectus around 1.8 million years ago. As H. erectus is generally thought to be part of the lineage that is directly ancestral to us, this would seem to preclude H. naledi as a member of our direct line, unless it represents a sister group to our species that preserves a lot of the primitive morphology of a shared ancestor. This interpretation bumps H. erectus to a side branch of our family tree. A different type of analysis of the features of various species of Homo suggests instead a more bushy view of earliest Homo – whatever that ancestor was split into a number of species, each having only some of the ancestor’s features. What we can say is that H. naledi is likely only part of a branch that originated earlier in time, with the authors going so far as to suggest that we might already have fossils from earlier on this branch that we have not recognized due to their fragmentary nature (Berger et al. 2017).
Regardless of where Homo naledi ends up on our family tree, it’s still an incredible discovery that contributes to our understanding of the human fossil record. It provides a window into a time period in our history from which we don’t have great data and underscores two important ideas: first, that for most of our evolutionary history, Homo sapiens was not the only hominin species on the planet; and second, that there are still spectacular fossils waiting to be discovered.