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Who is Our Newest Family Member?

Homo naledi

New discoveries constantly change the way we approach familiar topics. A recent discovery in South Africa is now questioning everything we thought we knew about our family tree. So, who’s our newest family member? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

Before getting into this new discovery and its implications let’s look at how a field of study can radically be changed by one discovery. In 1929 life was plugging along under the assumption that our sun was one of the many stars in the single galaxy and that was the bounds of the entire universe. Edwin Hubble’s big contribution to science came as he realized that there are indeed other collections of stars very far away from us and the universe itself is expanding. These notions launched the study of a bold new frontier in theoretical and observable astronomical research. Hubble’s contribution to humanity was to better understand our place in the vastness of space. This was a complete game changer.

Similarly, these types of breakthroughs happen in many different fields of study. Recently a huge new discovery in the Rising Star cave system in Southern Africa could very well redefine our understanding of ourselves. The study of human evolution just added a massive new piece to the puzzle of our origins. Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist, and a team of scientists just unearthed the remains of what turns out to be a whole new species of hominids. Homo naledi is the most recent discovery in the human family tree. This creature had the feet of a modern human, but hands that were better suited for life in the trees.

By looking at skeletal remains scientists have concluded that its brain was roughly the size of an orange, but that does not infer that it was significantly more primitive than modern humans. Remarkably this discovery included finding nearly 15 specimen's worth of bones. This means that this collection of bodies very well could be a burial site. Currently our understanding of rituals such as burials are linked to species much further down the evolutionary road. There is a chance that these beings were considering things like their own mortality, perhaps an after life, and could have even had ritualistic events which totally question our understanding of how culture advanced with an increase in brain size.

This discovery calls into question many aspects of how we live. As of now more advanced human species such as Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis, and us Homo sapiens are considered to be the few species that had the mental capabilities to consider abstract thinking such as the afterlife. Though Homo naledi’s brain size is significantly smaller than our own they were participating in rituals that came along much later in human evolution. This discovery has already spawned new work that will help complete the picture of our origins. Carbon dating is not an easy process, but interested parties have begun the work to see how old Homo naledie is. Perhaps more information on its age and time period of existence will help unlock more answers about not only its origin, but perhaps ours as well.

Regardless, for now we seem to officially have a newly discovered ancestor, and just like family its already making us question everything about ourselves!