View Full Version : Ancient Hominids Found in Cradle of Humankind WHS, SA

Jean M
11-13-2013, 08:10 PM
Fossil Cache Yields Multiple Ancient Hominids

Within 24 hours of beginning their fossil recovery, scientists on the Rising Star Expedition discover that the cave contains more than one individual. Having gone to bed the night before thrilled that they had in hand a hominid mandible, and that limb bones and part of a skull still lay within the cave, everyone was quite satisfied with the results of the expedition so far.

Midway through the next morning, some of the bones were being found more than once. Vertebrates being bilaterally symmetrical, whatever bone of one you find which is discernible as left or right, if you find another, that’s a pretty good sign you’ve got more than one individual.

As the day progressed, the experts in the tent marked “SCIENCE” shook their heads and looked skeptically at each other as they unwrapped the bone fragments and found themselves saying things like, “That sure looks like another one of these…” and “Let me see #18 again…”

In this part of South Africa, most of the hominid finds are encased in concrete-like rock called breccia, which takes months to chip away enough to reveal bones inside. At expedition leader Lee Berger’s lab at the nearby University of Witwatersrand, they are still working their way through hunks of stone discovered in 2009 bearing the remains of Australopithecus sediba.

Having spent only 11 hours total in the cave so far, to have dozens of fossils neatly labeled and clearly indicating the presence of multiple individuals, the team members are beside themselves.

There is a video.


Jean M
11-13-2013, 08:12 PM
Background on the Rising Star expedition : http://www.wits.ac.za/newsroom/newsitems/201312/21993/news_item_21993.html

An international team of researchers will in the next few days begin excavations on a new site that may contain evidence of early human fossil remains in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (COHWHS), some 40km north of Johannesburg.

Professor Lee Berger, a Research Professor in Human Evolution from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, will direct the expedition at Rising Star Cave. Berger is best known for the discovery of Australopithecus sediba at the Malapa site in the COHWHS — one of the most significant palaeoanthropological discoveries in recent times.

Berger announced the expedition today, 6 November 2013, at a media briefing held at Wits University.

“We do not know as yet what species of hominin we have found, and we will not speculate. Our aim is to get the fossils out carefully, study them, compare them to other fossil material from around the world and then proceed to analyse and describe them. This is part of the scientific process and we are hoping to publish our findings — if all goes well — late in 2014,” explains Berger.

Jean M
11-14-2013, 05:04 PM
John Hawks is there: http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/expeditions/rising-star-blog-update-2013.html

For the past five days, I've been cataloguing dozens of fossils from the Rising Star site. The National Geographic Explorer's Journal blog has some incredible video shorts from the site, and some short blog posts describing what is coming out.

11-24-2013, 10:33 PM
Elen Feuerriegel has a nice blog post on Nov 20 (link) (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/23/the-view-from-a-caverscientist/), here is an excerpt:

We begin work and immediately start removing a surfeit of fossils. That is remarkable in and of itself, but today we hit the holy grail. In the process of clearing the Puzzle Box, Alia and I excavate a critical section of frontal bone that can begin to reveal the face of the ancient hominids in this chamber. Our hands shake visibly as we painstakingly remove it from the ground and I finally hold it up to the camera for Lee to see. There’s a moment of breathless suspense as he looks at the camera and finally seems to register what he’s seeing. When his delighted exclamation of “Wow!” finally comes over the coms, it’s the cue for everyone to breathe out. The fossil is beautifully preserved. It’s exactly what we needed to start making some sense of this site.

It is amazing to be able to follow their day by day progress on the website.

Jean M
11-27-2013, 09:39 PM
I've enjoyed it. The expedition wrapped up today, but we will have to wait to find out what they found. There are "more than 1200 cataloged hominid fossil elements to transfer to Wits University." They are overwhelmed.

Handling all this material will require the creation of new systems, new forms of collaboration, and new opportunities for young and up-and-coming scientists. Lee Berger and his team of senior scientists are developing such a plan now.

Jean M
11-29-2013, 02:43 PM
And the BBC was invited: Richest human fossil site found in South Africa. There is a video.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25148592 .

Jean M
01-23-2014, 03:32 PM
Call for Scientists to Join Rising Star Workshop 2014

Unearthing more than 1200 early hominin fossil elements in November 2013, the Rising Star Expedition produced more material than one scientist or traditional paleoanthropological team could process in several years.

That inspired project leader Lee Berger and his collaborators come up with a different way of handling this find. Believing that there are likely to be other big hominid discoveries in the coming years, they want the people who will be leaders in the future to get used to handling large amounts of fossils now. “We hope to engage the next generation of scientists,” says Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, “and give them an opportunity to participate directly in this new age of exploration.”

To that end, Berger and colleagues just issued the following call for early-career scientists to join an innovative month-long workshop to study the material and prepare papers this spring.


02-24-2014, 02:35 AM
John Hawks returns to Rising Star (link (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2014/02/20/scientists-return-to-explore-a-second-fossil-chamber/)). More details on his blog page (link (date-feb-2014.html)).

Jean M
09-09-2015, 07:28 PM

NOVA and National Geographic present exclusive access to a unique discovery of ancient remains. Located in an almost inaccessible chamber deep in a South African cave, the site required recruiting a special team of experts slender enough to wriggle down a vertical, pitch-dark, seven-inch-wide passage. Most fossil discoveries of human relatives consist of just a handful of bones. But down in this hidden chamber, the team uncovered an unprecedented trove—so far, over 1,500 bones—with the potential to rewrite the story of our origins. They may help fill in a crucial gap in the fossil record and tell us how Homo, the first member of the human family, emerged from ape-like ancestors like the famous Lucy. But how did hundreds of bones end up in the remote chamber? The experts are considering every mind-boggling possibility. Join NOVA on the treacherous descent into this cave of spectacular and enigmatic finds, and discover their startling implications for the saga of what made us human.

Airing September 16, 2015 at 9 pm on PBS

Jean M
09-09-2015, 07:32 PM
John Hawks revealed on Twitter that Wits University will be livestreaming the Rising Star fossil announcement 10:30 SAST (=04:30 EDT) Thursday 10 September.


We are promised the announcement of a major discovery.

09-10-2015, 09:17 AM
I've been watching the livestream. Welcome homo naledi!




The paper is open access: http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09561

They will attempt to extract aDNA.

Clinton P
09-10-2015, 09:46 AM
The studies which have been published in the journal Elife also indicate that these individuals were capable of ritual behaviour.

Click here (http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09560) to read the article in full at eLIFE


Homo naledi is a previously-unknown species of extinct hominin discovered within the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. This species is characterized by body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations but a small endocranial volume similar to australopiths. Cranial morphology of H. naledi is unique, but most similar to early Homo species including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis. While primitive, the dentition is generally small and simple in occlusal morphology. H. naledi has humanlike manipulatory adaptations of the hand and wrist. It also exhibits a humanlike foot and lower limb. These humanlike aspects are contrasted in the postcrania with a more primitive or australopith-like trunk, shoulder, pelvis and proximal femur. Representing at least 15 individuals with most skeletal elements repeated multiple times, this is the largest assemblage of a single species of hominins yet discovered in Africa.

Clinton P

09-10-2015, 10:42 AM
Homo Naledi

BBC News :

New human-like species discovered in S Africa



The Guardian :

Homo naledi: New species of ancient human discovered, claim scientists



Jean M
09-10-2015, 11:19 AM
From the Guardian report (link in post above) come voices of doubt:

Without knowing the age of the bones, some researchers see the fossils as little more than novelties. “If they are as old as two million years, then they might be early South African versions of Homo erectus, a species already known from that region. If much more recent, they could be a relic species that persisted in isolation. In other words, they are more curiosities than game-changers for now,” said William Jungers, an anthropologist at Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York.

Christoph Zollikofer, an anthropologist at the University of Zurich, said that many of the bone characteristics used to claim the creature as a new species are seen in more primitive animals, and by definition cannot be used to define a new species. “The few ‘unique’ features that potentially define the new species need further scrutiny, as they may represent individual variation, or variation at the population level,” he said. Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, goes further. “From what is presented here, they belong to a primitive Homo erectus, a species named in the 1800s.”

09-10-2015, 02:00 PM
^ The question of Homo erectus was raised during the Q&A session. The response was that although there were some vague similarities, the overall morphology of h.naledi was decidedly unlike h.erectus.

This was also mentioned in the Nat. Geo. article linked earlier:

But then there was the head. Four partial skulls had been found—two were likely male, two female. In their general morphology they clearly looked advanced enough to be called Homo. But the braincases were tiny—a mere 560 cubic centimeters for the males and 465 for the females, far less than H. erectus’s average of 900 cubic centimeters, and well under half the size of our own. A large brain is the sine qua non of humanness, the hallmark of a species that has evolved to live by its wits. These were not human beings. These were pinheads, with some humanlike body parts.

09-10-2015, 03:10 PM
Is there going to be any way to date the remains?

09-10-2015, 03:20 PM
Is there going to be any way to date the remains?
They're working on it still. Based on morphological characteristics, they're guessing somewhere around 2.0 to 2.5 million years. It could be much less, however.

09-11-2015, 07:38 AM
From the Nat Geo article "A large brain is the sine qua non of humanness, the hallmark of a species that has evolved to live by its wits. These were not human beings. These were pinheads, with some humanlike body parts."
According to this article our brain has diminished 10% in 30k years http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9750968 brain size follows body size and "exceptional mental abilities of humans may be a result of functional rather than anatomical evolution."

09-17-2015, 06:05 AM
The Nova program that aired tonight was extremely well done an very inspiring. Sorry I don't have a link but I assume it well be available on their web page. Two hours, no commercials. Here is a link to an article on Lee Berger (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/evolution/lee-berger/).

Jean M
10-25-2015, 03:51 PM
Scientist who found new human species accused of playing fast and loose with the truth

The palaeontologist whose team found Homo naledi has been criticised for rushing his findings and making basic errors

It remains one of the most dramatic human fossil finds of recent years. In 2013, in a tiny, cramped chamber in the Rising Star cave near Johannesburg, researchers led by palaeontologist Lee Berger uncovered several thousand bones of ancient humans. The team now concludes that these are the remains of a previously unknown species, Homo naledi.

The news, announced last month, made headlines around the world. However, the discovery has since become mired in controversy. Some scientists claim the bones belong to an already known species of human, Homo erectus. Others have criticised Berger for claiming that the remains come from a deliberate burial, while several have complained that he has not been able to date his finds.

But the real controversy has been over the manner in which Berger has revealed his work to the world. Palaeontology is a field of science noted for the amount of time senior experts take to study a single skeleton in isolation before publishing their results in an established peer-reviewed journal, while retaining tight control of the fossils they have discovered. Some take more than a decade to do so.

By contrast, Berger and his colleagues have acted with extraordinary rapidity, under the glare of National Geographic cameras, using teams of young researchers to help publish their results in an open-access journal while offering files that can be used by anyone with the right basic equipment to make 3D copies of Naledi skulls and bones. To say that old-school fossil-hunters disapprove would be something of an understatement...

However, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum defended Berger’s approach: “The creation of a new human species is always going to be controversial,” he told the Observer. “Nevertheless, Berger has published his material quickly and in some detail via open access. Any serious researcher can now apply to study the material themselves. Files can also be downloaded free of charge to make 3D copies of the fossils, so people can make up their own minds. We were able to look at a 3D copy of the most complete jawbone only two days after publication. This is a very refreshing approach to the study of human fossils.”

10-26-2015, 01:27 AM
^ If the critics actually read the paper and watched the Nat. Geo. documentary, they might have realized that Lee Berger had damn good reasons for doing what he did. The paper clearly mentions that the Dinaledi Cave was frequently visited by local cavers, and evidence existed that amateurs (non-archaeologists) had entered the shaft of interest many years previous, indicated by the freshly broken bones seen in the photographs sent by the amateur discovers who initially notified Prof. Berger.

[The fact that the bones were extremely fragile suggests that the usual fossilization process - the replacement of osseous tissues by harder minerals under pressure - did not occur.]

Accelerating the expedition was absolutely necessary to avoid further destruction of the artifacts, since the site couldn't be secured or kept secret, and waiting 2 to 15 years for old-school peer-review is simply not a viable option now.

10-26-2015, 03:52 AM
The traditional approach is to keep the data secret for 10 or more years before even submitting it for peer review. That is the really remarkable and wonderful thing that Lee Berger is doing - making the data available to anyone rather than keeping it secret, even though that means others might scoop him on some publications. He gives up the personal benefit of control of the data so that the science can advance the science more rapidly.

06-26-2016, 04:10 AM
Here is an update from John Hawks on the Homo naledi research (http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/2016/4/the-latest-on-homo-naledi). The open access and outreach to young researchers is just amazing, a real revolution in the way science can be done.

From the link: "We were able to report that we are working on determining the geological age of the fossil deposit, applying techniques that can be used to date the site’s flowstones (sheetlike formations of calcite that grow where water flows down walls or floors in caves). We are also using some destructive mechanisms to examine the bones and teeth themselves. Developing the chronology is a difficult undertaking, and we are committed to being cautious as we proceed."

Jean M
05-09-2017, 02:11 PM
And here we have the publication of several papers on Homo naledi


John Hawks et al., New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa

The Rising Star cave system has produced abundant fossil hominin remains within the Dinaledi Chamber, representing a minimum of 15 individuals attributed to Homo naledi. Further exploration led to the discovery of hominin material, now comprising 131 hominin specimens, within a second chamber, the Lesedi Chamber. The Lesedi Chamber is far separated from the Dinaledi Chamber within the Rising Star cave system, and represents a second depositional context for hominin remains. In each of three collection areas within the Lesedi Chamber, diagnostic skeletal material allows a clear attribution to H. naledi. Both adult and immature material is present. The hominin remains represent at least three individuals based upon duplication of elements, but more individuals are likely present based upon the spatial context. The most significant specimen is the near-complete cranium of a large individual, designated LES1, with an endocranial volume of approximately 610 ml and associated postcranial remains. The Lesedi Chamber skeletal sample extends our knowledge of the morphology and variation of H. naledi, and evidence of H. naledi from both recovery localities shows a consistent pattern of differentiation from other hominin species.

Paul HGM Dirks et al, The age of Homo naledi and associated sediments in the Rising Star Cave, South Africa

New ages for flowstone, sediments and fossil bones from the Dinaledi Chamber are presented. We combined optically stimulated luminescence dating of sediments with U-Th and palaeomagnetic analyses of flowstones to establish that all sediments containing Homo naledi fossils can be allocated to a single stratigraphic entity (sub-unit 3b), interpreted to be deposited between 236 ka and 414 ka. This result has been confirmed independently by dating three H. naledi teeth with combined U-series and electron spin resonance (US-ESR) dating. Two dating scenarios for the fossils were tested by varying the assumed levels of 222Rn loss in the encasing sediments: a maximum age scenario provides an average age for the two least altered fossil teeth of 253 +82/–70 ka, whilst a minimum age scenario yields an average age of 200 +70/–61 ka. We consider the maximum age scenario to more closely reflect conditions in the cave, and therefore, the true age of the fossils. By combining the US-ESR maximum age estimate obtained from the teeth, with the U-Th age for the oldest flowstone overlying Homo naledi fossils, we have constrained the depositional age of Homo naledi to a period between 236 ka and 335 ka. These age results demonstrate that a morphologically primitive hominin, Homo naledi, survived into the later parts of the Pleistocene in Africa, and indicate a much younger age for the Homo naledi fossils than have previously been hypothesized based on their morphology.

Lee R. Berger et al., Homo naledi and Pleistocene hominin evolution in subequatorial Africa

New discoveries and dating of fossil remains from the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa, have strong implications for our understanding of Pleistocene human evolution in Africa. Direct dating of Homo naledi fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber (Berger et al., 2015) shows that they were deposited between about 236 ka and 335 ka (Dirks et al., 2017), placing H. naledi in the later Middle Pleistocene. Hawks and colleagues (Hawks et al., 2017) report the discovery of a second chamber within the Rising Star system (Dirks et al., 2015) that contains H. naledi remains. Previously, only large-brained modern humans or their close relatives had been demonstrated to exist at this late time in Africa, but the fossil evidence for any hominins in subequatorial Africa was very sparse. It is now evident that a diversity of hominin lineages existed in this region, with some divergent lineages contributing DNA to living humans and at least H. naledi representing a survivor from the earliest stages of diversification within Homo. The existence of a diverse array of hominins in subequatorial comports with our present knowledge of diversity across other savanna-adapted species, as well as with palaeoclimate and paleoenvironmental data. H. naledi casts the fossil and archaeological records into a new light, as we cannot exclude that this lineage was responsible for the production of Acheulean or Middle Stone Age tool industries.

11-13-2017, 02:56 AM
Updates from John Hawks on the most recent excavations (http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/rising-star/september-2017-rising-star-update.html) at the Rising Star cave system.

Discovering more fossil material back into the tiny passages behind and to the sides of the chamber tells us something that we didn’t know before. Hominin material now is separated by up to 30 meters within the overall Dinaledi Chamber area, within some of the most improbable places. As we move forward, we will be looking for more ways to test hypotheses about how this extraordinary distribution of material could have arisen. Obviously one idea is that H. naledi may entered the Dinaledi Chamber alive, remarkable as that seems. But we aren’t ruling anything out.