New Species of Human Relative Discovered


Sept. 8, 2015

Dartmouth anthropologist helps analyze and define Homo naledi, our newest ancestor

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In the single largest fossil hominin discovery yet made, an international team that includes Dartmouth’s Jeremy DeSilva has found more than 1,600 fossils of a new species of human relative in a cave in South Africa.

The discovery of Homo naledi, was announced by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation on Thursday, Sept. 10. The finds are described in two papers to be published Thursday in the journal eLife.

“Such a rich trove of fossil specimens is unparalleled,” says DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology. “The site of the famous Lucy skeleton only yielded up about 400 fossils after years of excavation. Leakey’s Olduvai Gorge produced just 80 fossils ever. But at Rising Star, two women in one week dug out 600 fossils, including a complete foot, a complete hand and a snout. Unreal!”

The new species, H. naledi, sheds light on the origins and diversity of our genus. H. naledi also appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behavior previously thought limited to humans. Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, led the expeditions that recovered the fossils.

The team removed more than 1,500 fossilized bones belonging to at least 15 females, males and children -- exceeding any other human ancestor site in Africa – who were probably entombed at the same time at the site. “This could be the earliest evidence of deliberate disposal of the dead,” says DeSilva. A test trench revealed that there might be thousands of fossils below, with bodies stacked on top of each other.

DeSilva, a specialist in the locomotion of ancient apes and early human ancestors, is an expert in the functional anatomy of the human foot and ankle. He has also studied the bone structure of the ankles of chimpanzees, humans’ closest living relatives. However, in 2010, he homed in on fossils, joining Berger to analyze the foot and leg of Australopithecus sediba, a contender for an early position in the human lineage. Now his collaboration with Berger is focused on H. naledi.

One of the two papers to be published Thursday is a major treatise that details the discovery, provides an overall description of the find and announces the naming of the H. naledi. DeSilva contributed to the paper with a description and a functional analysis of the creature’s feet and legs.


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