H.naledi ‘surpassed all expectations’
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Pretoria - The discovery of fossils of a new species of human relative in South Africa, named Homo naledi by scientists, surpassed the scientists’ expectations, Witwatersrand University research Professor Lee Berger said on Thursday.
Berger, who is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, led the two expeditions that discovered and recovered the fossils.
“We didn’t go into that cave with an expectation of that extraordinary discovery. We had gone there with an idea of recovering one fossil and that turned into multiple fossils. It turned into the discovery of multiple skeletons,” Berger said at Maropeng, in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg.
“So by the time of the end of that remarkable 21-day experience, we had discovered the largest assemblage of fossil human relatives ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa. That was an extraordinary experience.”
He said it took the commitment and hard work by teams of scientists and volunteer cavers and the process was “not a Lee Berger show”.
The discovery consisting of more than 1,550 numbered fossil elements. The initial discovery was made in 2013 in a cave known as Rising Star in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, northwest of Johannesburg.
The fossils, which have yet to be dated, lay in a chamber about 90 metres from the cave entrance, accessible only through a chute so narrow that a special team of very slender individuals was needed to retrieve them.
The fossil parts were found in different parts of the stratigraphy, leading scientists to believe that the fossils entered the cave over an extended period of time.
It is believed members of Homo naledi (H. Naledi) entered the cave to deposit the bodies. This suggests the species buried their dead.
The discovery of H. naledi was announced at a prestigious event attended by international scientists, academia, top government officials, local and international media.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said the discovery of H. naledi will not only enhance understanding of the past but give insight into the future.
“This chamber really gives us a window of understanding our past, beginning to gain more knowledge about our present moment and also gives us insight of what our future could look like,” Ramaphosa said at the World Heritage Site.
“For us to understand how these species lived right here in South Africa, right here on the African continent, is something that is a great step for us. This is a giant step to understand who we are.”
Ramaphosa said September 10 will go down in history books “as one of those moments in which the world learnt something new and remarkable”.
Maropeng, the visitor centre to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, was opened almost 10 years ago.
Ramaphosa said the South African government had fulfilled its international responsibility to Unesco to protect, preserve and showcase the world heritage site which has “outstanding universal value”.
“On behalf of the people of South Africa, I invite the world to visit the Cradle of Humankind Visitor Centre, Maropeng, where this new find will be on display for one month,” said Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa commended the “underground astronauts” who worked on the project, which he said gives hope that modern challenges including hunger, social exclusion and under development can be overcome.
The species have been named Homo naledi after the Rising Star cave at the world heritage site. Naledi means ‘star’ in Sesotho. The H. naledi species is believed to be more than 2.5 million years old.
So far, the team of scientists and cavers have recovered parts of at least 15 individuals of the same species - a fraction of the fossils believed to be in the chamber.