A small cave nes­tled in the Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site has become the back­drop for one of the most com­pelling sto­ries in the world — the dis­cov­ery of a new ancient human rel­a­tive, Homo nale­di.

The stun­ning dis­cov­ery was made in Sep­tem­ber 2013 by research teams from the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand and has been announced to the world at the Maropeng Vis­i­tors Cen­tre today.

Homo nale­di, has been named after the Dinale­di cave sys­tem in which it was found. Nale­di” means star” in Setswana. The fos­sils of this newest mem­ber of our genus are incred­i­bly unique for a num­ber of rea­sons, says Pro­fes­sor Lee Berg­er, who led the Ris­ing Star expe­di­tion into the cave sys­tem to recov­er fos­sils from the site. 

They would stand at about 1.5m tall. They had tiny brains – slight­ly larg­er than an orange. That is as small as the small­est Aus­tralo­p­ithicenes we have seen. Yet a cra­nial shape that’s that of a mem­ber of our genus.

From mid­way down the arm, right through to the wrist and the palm – this species looks like a human. The thumb is utter­ly unique and long. The hand itself is approx­i­mate­ly pro­por­tioned like a human, but the pha­langes and fin­gers are hyper curved. So curved that the only crea­ture we have with cur­va­ture like that are four- or five-mil­lion-year-old prim­i­tive mem­bers of our species. We have no idea what that means,” says Berger.

Naledi 3D Print

The newest mem­ber of the genus Homo. Meet Homo nale­di

More unique­ly though, is the con­text in which the fos­sils were dis­cov­ered. They were sim­ply lying on the floor of the remote deep under­ground cave – some­thing that is itself unprece­dent­ed, Berg­er says.

(12) Lindsay Eaves In The Rising Star Cave  Cc Ellen Feuerriegel Wits University

Sci­en­tists had to squeeze through a chute that nar­rowed to 17cm in width at one point, to access the cham­ber in the Dinale­di system

Per­haps the most intrigu­ing part of the dis­cov­ery was the fact that the the remains of Homo nale­di appeared to have been delib­er­ate­ly dis­posed of inside the remote cham­ber over a peri­od of time in a rit­u­al­is­tic man­ner. That’s some­thing that pre­vi­ous­ly, we thought was con­fined to only mod­ern human behav­iour,” Berg­er adds. 

We have males and females, we have near-foetal age indi­vid­u­als, we have infants, chil­dren, teens, tweens and the extreme elder­ly,” says Berger. 

We elim­i­nat­ed that this is some sort of mass death event. We can tell that they came in over time. We know that they were not washed into this cham­ber. We know that this cham­ber has nev­er been opened direct­ly to the sur­face. All sed­i­ments accu­mu­late from with­in this cham­ber itself.

We know that no preda­tor was involved in this. No marks on any of the bones. They had not been dragged into this remote, deep loca­tion. They sit in this deep cham­ber that took us 45 min­utes to reach with mod­ern equip­ment. And we have come to this inevitable con­clu­sion that this was a delib­er­ate body dis­pos­al situation.

What is remark­able about that – this is the first time in all of his­to­ry that human beings have encoun­tered a non-human species that delib­er­ate­ly dis­pos­es of its dead,” adds Berger. 

Professor Lee R  Berger: Naledi:wits Vault 7

Homo nale­di seemed aware of its own mor­tal­i­ty, a trait that was thought to be unique to humans, says Pro­fes­sor Lee Berger

This is a unique moment in his­to­ry. Where that goes and stud­ies that are under­tak­en beyond this, some may go beyond the realm of sci­ence, but they may actu­al­ly go on to con­tem­plate what makes us human now,” says Berger. 

The sheer num­ber of fos­sils in the cave was also unprece­dent­ed. By the end of the 21-day expe­di­tion, the team recov­ered the largest assem­blage of prim­i­tive hominin spec­i­mens ever dis­cov­ered on the con­ti­nent of Africa.

At the launch, sci­en­tists revealed their find­ings on 1 550 indi­vid­ual hominin remains – in more than 60 papers released online. 

That is more indi­vid­ual remains than have been dis­cov­ered in the pre­vi­ous 90 years in South Africa,” says Berger.

The his­toric fos­sils will be on dis­play at Maropeng for a month to allow as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble to get a chance to see the remark­able find. We will be giv­ing a 25% dis­count for all tick­ets to the Vis­i­tor Cen­tre while the fos­sils are here from Fri­day, 11 October.