The University of the Witswatersrand unveiled its latest findings today on what is being described as possibly the most important fossil discovery to be made at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site in Maropeng.
The expedition, led by Professor Lee Berger, started in September two years ago but has been kept under wraps until today. The find? It’s claimed to be the largest fossil assemblage of a new hominin species on the African continent.
“We never imagined finding anything like this. I feel very privileged, I think my colleagues feel very privileged. We also feel very privileged at the attention that the public and media has given to this scientific story because human origins isn’t just a scientific story, it’s our science story,” Berger told News24.
It is said that the discovery of the fossils will challenge almost every notion of how humans evolved, along with its origins in Southern Africa.
“What we’re announcing today is the product of one of the largest scientific endeavours ever to occur in the history of palaeontology, bringing scientists from all over the world to study not only the fossils themselves but also the context of the fossil,” Berger added.
The fossils were discovered in a small cave 30 meters underground, and the team actually launched a Facebook call for people fitting a certain body profile who would be able to squeeze into the small spaces.
“We didn’t go into the cave with that expectation of extraordinary discovery. We [went] in with the idea of recovering one fossil. That turned into multiple fossils, it turned into the discovery of multiples skulls and individuals. By the end of the 21-day excavation, we had discovered the largest assemblage of fossil-human relatives ever discovered in the history of the continent,” Berger said during the unveiling.
“Today, I am pleased to introduce to you, a new species of human ancestor. A new species within our very own genus. A species that we have called Homo naledi,” Berger announced.
Berger told CNN that the cave was more than likely a burial site, which would explain all the different ages and the number of fossils found. More than 15 individuals were discovered, across all ages.
“There is no damage from predators, there is no sign of a catastrophe. We had to come to the inevitable conclusion that Homo naledi, a non-human species of hominin, was deliberately disposing of its dead in that dark chamber. Why, we don’t know,” he said.
Vice Chancellor for Wits Adam Habib said that the discovery has a global impact.
“This discovery makes momentous impact. A momentous impact nationally, a momentous impact continentally, and a momentous impact globally. It has an impact on the global academy, but it has an impact on the global society and global citizenry,” he said during the unveiling.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa attended the unveiling and said that we will learn a lot from the discovery.
“Today we will be writing in the history books something that is going to shed new knowledge that is going to tell us something new. The discovery of a new species of primitive hominin in our journals reveals much about our own origins and our own ancestors. In time it will reveal much more about ourselves, and will probably tell us about our future as well.”
[Main image – A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. The find was announced by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation and publish ed in the journal eLife. Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic, published in the October issue of National Geographic]