Johannesburg

Homo Naledi and South Africa's Cradle of Humankind

13 Jan 2022
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, the Cradle of Humankind is a cave-strewn area around 50km north west of Johannesburg where some of the most significant hominid fossil discoveries in the world have been made. Until recently the biggest finds were the remains of two famous hominids, the so-called Mrs Ples (approximately 2 million years old) and Little Foot (currently believed to be around 3.6 million years old).

Then one weekend in 2013 a pair of cave explorers stumbled across a collection of bones in a cavern deep inside the Rising Star cave, which turned out to be one of the greatest fossil finds ever made on the African continent.
 
A replica of the first homo naledi skull discovered in the Rising Star cave

A crack team of scientists and palaeontologists from universities across the world was assembled and the pain-staking process of safely extracting the fossils began. Every day for 21 days an all-female crew of so-called 'underground astronauts', chosen both for their scientific experience and their ability to traverse cave tunnels which in places are as narrow as 17.5cm, travelled into the cave system to uncover the 'fossil jackpot'. What awaited the team in the Rising Star cave was unprecedented – a collection of 15 partial skeletons belonging to a never-before-seen hominid species which has been christened 'homo naledi'.

The extraordinary find was revealed to the world on September 10, 2015 and the implications for what we currently know about human evolution are amazing. Scientists have learned from the fossil remains that homo naledi looked fairly similar to us homo sapiens with similarly-sized hands and feet, although the homo naledi brain was probably only about the size of an orange. The bones are estimated to be between 230,000 and 330,000 years old, making homo naledi a contemporary of homo sapiens.

What is even more extraordinary is exactly where the remains were found – deep inside a narrow and difficult-to-access network of caverns. Previous discoveries in the Cradle area were made in open caves and scientists surmised that the bodies of Mrs Ples and Little Foot came to rest after falling through cave entrances on the surface.
 
Fossil remains from the first homo naledi discovery made in the Rising Star cave
However, the Rising Star cave where homo naledi was found is different. The location of this cavern could not have been accessed by accident, which raises questions of just what exactly homo naledi was doing inside this cave? Could the hominids have gotten lost within the cave system and perished there? Or might they have used the caves as a place of ritual practice? The paleoanthropologist Professor Lee Burger, who led the discovery, outlined in a special 27-page feature in National Geographic titled Almost Human his theory that homo naledi used these caves to bury its dead, suggestive of an early hominid species that possessed intelligent thought. If such a theory may be true, as Burger says 'this [face] changes the human story'.

More homo naledi discoveries continue to be made in the Rising Star cave, including most recently in November 2021 the tiny skull of a homo naledi child that has been named “Letimela”. Scientists in South Africa believe that this latest find adds further credence to their hypothesis that homo naledi carried out burial rituals. Intriguingly only Letimela's skull was found in the cave and there seems to be no evidence of this child being attacked or eaten by animals...   
 
How homo naledi may have looked
To learn more about the evolutionary history of humans and about the life of our distant ancestors, visit these places in the Cradle of Humankind

MAROPENG

Located in the middle of the scenic rolling grasslands of the Cradle of Humankind, the Maropeng visitor's centre  (Maropeng means 'returning to the place of our ancestors') is designed to resemble an ancient burial mound. The large exhibition takes an interactive approach to the history of life as we know it from the big bang to the evolution of humankind, the discovery of fire and the spread of people across continents. Designed to particular appeal to school children, a visit starts with a fun boat ride through the ages before you enter the museum proper. There are lots of interactive and educational displays complemented by examples of the kinds of fossils and tools discovered in the Cradle of Humankind. At the end of the exhibition you can also see the exact replicas of all the famous fossils that were discovered in this area (the actual fossils themselves spend most of their time being studied by scientists).

STERKFONTEIN CAVES

A perfect accompaniment to a visit to the museum at Maropeng is a guided tour of the Sterkfontein Caves (a five minute drive down the road), the cave system where the remains of Little Foot and Mrs Ples were found. Guided tours of the caves take around 45 minutes and are not recommended for the unfit as there are numerous steps and some places where you are required to kneel or crawl. Combination Maropeng Museum + Sterkfontein Caves tickets are available.

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