Homo Naledi, Or What Does “Human” Mean?

What is it, to be human? Philosophers, prophets, priests, legislators, dictators and the sheep have been pondering the notion, since there are civilizations, and they wonder. Science, that is, facts, can increasingly contribute to the conversation. And it is taking surprising twists and turns, all the way into the bowels of the Earth.

Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger pleaded on social networks to find “tiny and small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills”. Was the excavation of a mysterious hominin in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa more circus than science?  “Underground astronauts” had to squeeze through a long, narrow chute less than 25 centimeters wide, to drop 30 meters into a fossil-filled cavern.

At This Point, Homo Naledi Is A Striking Mystery In Many Ways

At This Point, Homo Naledi Is A Striking Mystery In Many Ways

1550 fossils representing more than 15 individuals of a strange new kind of hominin, named Homo Naledi were found in a nearly impossible to reach cavity. The fossils are still undated: there is no stratigraphy in a cave 100 meters in, past two siphons. However, they confirm spectacularly what we already knew:

  1. There were, many profoundly different ways to be human. (We already knew this from the existence of Homo Florensis, who is very far from Homo Sapiens in physiology, but not achievements: he came with lots of sophisticated tiny weapons.)
  2. The Eurafricasian supercontinent enjoyed many areas covered with extremely diverse species of hominins. Homo Sapiens Sapiens is the fruit of a huge amount of group selection among vastly different possibilities on how to be human.

Although the fossils are still undated, making it hard to know where they sit in the human family tree, and, in particular, if they are ancestors to us, they already reveal a profoundly different way to be a member of our genus Homo. More than 60 researchers agree on the picture of “a relatively tall, skinny hominid with long legs, humanlike feet, with a core and shoulder that is primitive,” Berger says.

Paleoanthropologist T. Kivell of the University of Kent (UK) found that bones in the wrist were shaped like those in modern humans, suggesting that the palm at the base of the thumb was quite stiff,  allowing forces to spread over a larger area of the hand than in more primitive hominins—a trait associated to tool use. However, H. Naledi had a weird long thumb and long, curving fingers, associated to climbing trees.

Hand Homo Naledi: Climbing Is What Humans Do

Hand Homo Naledi: Climbing Is What Humans Do

The foot is so modern, it may have been capable of not just walking, but running.

And what were those Naledis doing, so deep inside the cave? Datation is crucial. 300,000 years, or three millions? Were the Homo Naledi there for burial, caught there by a catastrophe, or carried there by other humans more recently? We don’t know. Only one owl and a few rodents accompanied the 1500 human fossils.

All we know is the big picture: that humans were all over, all over Eurafricasia, and all over all possibilities of what humanity could be.

Patrice Ayme’

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3 Responses to “Homo Naledi, Or What Does “Human” Mean?”

  1. gmax Says:

    E pluribus, unum!

  2. Steverino Says:

    Marvelous! This one inspired me to read “Clan of The Cave Bear” that I’ve had sitting around for awhile.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks Steverino! Recent developments in paleontology are astounding. They make Rosny Aine’s century old “War of fire” (Guerre du Feu) prescient. The author depicted then several distinct species of humans co-existing. The great surprise is that those species were much diverse than expected, and the influence of prehistoric technology, much more pervasive. Homo Ergaster was found in Georgia 1.8 million years ago: the cover of science magazine represented him covered with clothing made of animal fur: the winters are harsh there. Big surprise. An on-going argument is rife about whether this is 5 species, or just a very diverse species.

      Homo Florensis, the hobbit, thrived until very recently, with its own little technology, although he had a completely different brain (he branched off at least two million years ago).

      Now we have Homo Naledi. But, little noticed by American paleontologists, Archaic Homo Sapiens have long been known in Europe (Homme de la Chapelle aux Saints, Homo Heidelbergsis). These were enormous specimens (6 feet tall, 200 pounds), ancestors to Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis. They were around 450,000 years old.

      A conclusion? Besides the extreme richness of what it means to be human, the “Out Of Africa” theory of man is either a recent twist, or mostly irrelevant. I have tried to explain that the disappearance of Neanderthals was mostly a genetic and epigenetic weeding-out of inherited characteristics technology had made advantageous no more.

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