Fossil remains in the Rising Star Cave system near Johannesburg were first uncovered in 2015 and were attributed to a new species dubbed Homo naledi. It was first believed these remains were about three million years old but research has dated them to between 236,000 and 335,000 years old, a time when Homo sapiens were also present in Africa.
Additionally, further exploration in the cave system uncovered a raft of new material, including finds of a child and two adult males, one of which has been dubbed Neo by the researchers. These remains were found in a second chamber called Lesedi and included a very well preserved skull (pictured) from the Neo skeleton.
These remains have yet to be dated as doing so would require destruction of some of the remains, but all evidence suggests they are part of the same Homo naledi species.
Dr Kivell and Dr Skinner were involved in the research to identify the bones that were uncovered in the Lesedi chamber, helping confirm they were the same as the first Homo naledi finds and understanding where they fit in the context of human evolution.
Dr Skinner focused on the dental remains that were recovered while Dr Kivell’s worked on bones from the hands. Her work has also included providing inferences about locomotor and manipulative behaviours that Homo naledi practiced.
The findings of the bones, deep within very hard to reach areas of the cave system, suggest they were deliberately placed there by other Homo naledi as part of a ritualistic disposal of human remains. This gives rise to the possibility that Homo sapiens may have learnt such behaviours from Homo naledi, rather than developing them independently.
In total 52 scientists from 35 departments and institutions were involved in the research findings, led by the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Three papers based on the findings have been published in the journal eLife.