Anthropologist sheds light on Homo naledi

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05-hand-homo-naledi-mounted-13-11-2014-john-hawks-cc-by by John Hawks

Research led by anthropologist Dr Tracy Kivell suggests that early human species Homo naledi may have been adapted for both climbing and walking.

The discovery of Homo naledi in a South African cave was announced to the world in September 2015.

Dr Kivell’s research, which has been published in the online journal Nature Communications, reveals that the wrist bones and thumb of Homo naledi show anatomical features that are shared with Neanderthals and humans. This suggests powerful grasping and the ability to use stone tools.

However, the finger bones are more curved than most earlier fossil humans species, such as Lucy’s species Australopithecus afarensis, which suggest the hand was used for climbing, a theory supported by research on Homo naledi foot bone fossils.

Dr Kivell worked with other experts from universities in South Africa, Canada and the United States on nearly 150 hand bones, uncovered from the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system in South Africa.

In a second paper, also published in Nature Communications, William Harcourt-Smith of Lehman College in New York and colleagues describe the Homo naledi foot, based on 107 foot elements from the Dinaldi Chamber, including a well preserved adult right foot. They show it shares many features with a modern human foot, indicating it is well-adapted for standing and walking on two feet.

There are potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of bones still in the Dinaledi chamber to be excavated and examined. Their date of origin remains unknown.

Dr Kivell is a Reader in Biological Anthropology in the School of Anthropology and Conservation with research interests in primate locomotion, skeletal morphology, origin and evolution of human bipedalism and hand use.

The paper, entitled The hand of Homo naledi (Tracy L. Kivell, Andrew S. Deane, Matthew W. Tocheri, Caley M. Orr, Peter Schmid, John Hawks, Lee R. Berger & Steven E. Churchill), was published in Nature Communications on 6 October 2015.