Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Discovery of the Homo Naledi

Discovery of the Homo Naledi
On Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of listening to professor Lee Berger talk about the discovery of the Homo Naledi in Africa. As an Ancient History student I have never sat in a lecture that discussed the remains of human ancestors, never mind see real life bones and casts of bones. The experience was truly incredible and inspiring.

Homo Naledi reconstruction
 The Homo Naledi is a fairly new discovery of another branch of our human ancestors. Berger discussed his career and the steps which took him to his incredible discoveries. After discussing his early career Berger started to discuss his use of mapping devices in the early 21st century which he used to compare known sites in order to find the unknown. On August 15th 2008, Professor Berger, his 9-year-old son Mathew and a graduate student headed to a site, later called Malapa. Whilst wondering round the site Berger’s son, Mathew discovered a fossil, a hominid clavicle, which had become embedded into the hard rock. When looking at the hominid remain Berger realised his son had found not just a clavicle but a hominid skeleton. The skeleton took 22,000 preparation hours to extract from the hard rock. The site also offered a vast array of organic material such as fossilised skin and hair which was seen as a massive breakthrough for the paleoanthropologist community. These kinds of finds were very rare in palaeoanthropology with teeth being seen as a major discovery. Hence Berger had just “won the lottery”.  


A construction of the cave system at Rising Star
After Malapa, Berger didn’t explore again until 2013. Whilst showing us a picture of the African landscape Berger stated that he saw the African landscape as “a large block of Swiss cheese.” This was due to the network of caves that reside underneath the surface. Thus Berger began exploring into the caves, resembled “small narrow trenches” instead of large open spaces. During the 90’s Berger had been caving before with little success thus his challenge arose in the prospects on how he moved the project forward. When a former student called Pedro, walked through his door Berger decided to join forces. This began the process of expanding the team. Rick Hunter and Steve Tucker were recruited to join their team as they could go deeper into the cave systems due to the physiognomy. After visiting numerous caves, it wasn’t until the pair went into the Rising Star cave system, one of the most well-known cave systems, that they discovered anything. After going through a 12m crawl, climbing up dragons back, crawling through a 7 ½ inch slot and then down a 60ft drop the pair entered into a small chamber that contained a variety of bones. The bones were lying on the ground, not embedded in to hard rock, which in Africa was unusual and made it easy to take pictures. Tucker and Hunter took pictures of the bones for Berger to see and identify as the remains of a Homo Naledi.

On November 7th 2013 a 60-person excavation began with 6 female scientists being chosen for their skill and size to go into the chamber and record and transport the evidence.  It was on the 10th November 2013 the first fossils reached the surface. More than one hominid skeleton had been found in the chamber with 15 individuals ranging from foetal to elderly in age being brought to the surface. 1, 800 remains were uncovered by the 1m by 20cm2 trench inferring that “this small trench had not even scraped the surface, the chamber has a lot more to offer”.  

Homo Nadeli, Rising Star Cave, South Africa
The state of the bones provided a controversial hypothesis that the Homo Naledi disposed of their dead, unlike any other hominid known. Humans differentiate themselves from animals by disposing their dead, hence this new information presents a new outlook on what it means to be human. In the next few months more information is going to be released on the findings from Rising Star. I am particularly interested in the dates of the bones, despite that not being essential to our understanding. It was also inferred that through using 3D virtual reality technology we will be able to experience being in the Rising Star chamber, without taking the risk of climbing through the cave system. Which to someone like me with a passion for history but with a fear of confined spaces, it would be an incredible experience. This excavation is a prime example of modern archaeological techniques which is always evolving, expanding our knowledge of history in the process. This lecture was truly incredible and I am so grateful for being able to have had the opportunity to listen to the discovery of the Homo Naledi and have gone away with a new perspective of modern methods in archaeology.

At the talk there was also an exhibition, present was a variety of bones ranging from apes and orangutan's to the bones of our early human ancestors. I had never seen human bones before, never mind such a collection of bones from our early ancestors, so it was very interesting to see real authentic and replicated bones.   
Homo floresiensis, "the Hobbit" 100-60,000 years ago, Indonesia

Homo Erectus, 1.7 million years old, 'Turkana boy'
A display of skulls (replicas)
For extra information and videos regarding the discovery visit the National geographic website.

1.     National Geographic (2013) Discovering Homo Naledi: Journey to find a human ancestor, part 1. Available at: (Accessed: 9 November 2016).
2.     Berger, L. (2016) Discovery of the Homo Naledi November.


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