Homo naledi – “star”

Homo naledi is an extinct species of hominin, which anthropologists first described in September 2015 and have assigned to the genus Homo. In 2013, fossil skeletons were found in the Gauteng province of South Africa, in the Rising Star Cave system, part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site about 50 km (31 mi) northwest of Johannesburg. Prior to dating, initial judgement based on archaic features of its anatomy favoured an age of roughly two million years old. In 2017, however, the fossils were dated to between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, long after much larger-brained and more modern-looking hominins had appeared. The research team therefore thinks that H. naledi is not a direct ancestor of modern humans, although it is probably an offshoot within the genus Homo.

The species is characterised by a body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations, a smaller endocranial volume similar to Australopithecus, and a skull shape similar to early Homo species. The skeletal anatomy presents ancestral features known from australopithecines with more recent features associated with later hominins. As of 10 September 2015, fossils of at least fifteen individuals, amounting to more than 1550 specimens, have been excavated from the cave. Abundant fossil remains are still within the chamber. Newer findings (remains of at least three individuals: two adults and a child) in a second chamber, known as Lesedi (“light” in the Sotho-Tswana languages), were reported by John Hawks et al. (2017). In May 2018, anthropologists provided evidence that the brain of H. nalediwas small, but nonetheless complex, sharing structural similarities with the modern human brain.

The fossils were discovered by recreational cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker in 2013. Homo naledi was formally described in September 2015 by a 47-member international team of authors led by South African paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, who proposed the bones represent a new Homo species. Other experts contend more analyses are needed to support this classification. There are some indications that the individuals may have been placed in the cave near the time of their death.

The word “naledi” means “star” in the Sotho-Tswana languages. It, and the corresponding name Dinaledi Chamber (“chamber of stars”), were chosen to reference the Rising Star cave system where the fossils were found.

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