Johannesburg: Homo naledi, the mysterious new hominin species discovered two years ago, was alive sometime between 335 and 236 thousand years ago and likely lived alongside the modern humans, scientists announced today.
New research presents the long-awaited age of the naledi fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system.
“This is the first time that it has been demonstrated that another species of hominin survived alongside the first humans in Africa,” researchers wrote in the study published today in the journal eLife.
An international team of researchers, including those from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, has announced the new discovery of a second chamber in the Rising Star cave system, containing additional specimens of Homo naledi.
These include a child and a partial skeleton of an adult male with a remarkably well-preserved skull.
Researchers found that Homo naledi, which was first announced in September 2015, was alive sometime between 335 and 236 thousand years ago.
This places this population of primitive small-brained hominins at a time and place that it is likely they lived alongside Homo sapiens.
The discovery of the second chamber with abundant Homo naledi fossils includes one of the most complete skeletons of a hominin ever discovered, as well as the remains of at least one child and another adult.
The discovery of a second chamber has led the team to argue that there is more support for the controversial hypothesis that Homo naledi deliberately disposed of its dead in these remote, hard to reach caverns.
The naledi date is surprisingly recent. The fossil remains have primitive features that are shared with some of the earliest known fossil members of our genus, such as Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis, species that lived nearly two million years ago.
On the other hand, however, it also shares some features with modern humans, researchers said. After the description of the new species in 2015, experts had predicted that the fossils should be around the age of these other primitive species. Instead, the fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber are barely more than one-tenth that age.
“The dating of naledi was extremely challenging,” said Professor Paul Dirks of James Cook University in Australia.
“Eventually, six independent dating methods allowed us to constrain the age of this population of Homo naledi to a period known as the late Middle Pleistocene,” said Dirks.
The age for this population of hominins shows that Homo naledi may have survived for as long as two million years alongside other species of hominins in Africa.
At such a young age, in a period known as the late Middle Pleistocene, it was previously thought that only Homo sapiens (modern humans) existed in Africa.
More critically, it is at precisely this time that we see the rise of what has been called “modern human behaviour” in southern Africa thought to represent the origins of complex modern human activities such as burial of the dead, self- adornment and complex tools, researchers said.