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[VIDEO] Fossils Found in South Africa Belong to a New Human Ancestor

Sep 10, 2015 03:15 PM EDT

A new human ancestor, named Homo naledi, was found in a South African cave known as Rising Star. More than 1,550 fossils were found over the course of two expeditions in Nov. 2013 and March 2014. According to the researchers, this discovery is the largest fossil hominin find made in Africa to date. Not only that, but the new hominin set aside its dead in remote areas of a cave, something that only humans have previously been known to do, according to a release

"With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage," Lee Berger at Wits University and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who led the expeditions that recovered and examined the fossils, in the release.

According to the researchers, Homo naledi had a brain about the size of an average orange and a slender body. These individuals were around five feet tall and weighed almost 100 pounds. While the fossil species' teeth and skull are also similar to other early-known members of our genus, their shoulders are more similar to those of apes, as the release confirms. 

"The hands suggest tool-using capabilities," Dr. Tracy Kivell, from the University of Kent, UK, said in the release. "Surprisingly, H. naledi has extremely curved fingers, more curved than almost any other species of early hominin, which clearly demonstrates climbing capabilities."

The researchers also found that the new species had feet almost identical to modern humans'. So, paired with their long legs, Homo naledi was well-suited for long walks. "Overall, Homo naledi looks like one of the most primitive members of our genus, but it also has some surprisingly human-like features, enough to warrant placing it in the genus Homo," John Hawks, one of the study's authors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in the release.

Lee Berger, a research professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, led the two expeditions. Rising Star cave lies in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, roughly 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, according to a release

Since the discovery, Lucas Delezene, an assistant professor of anthropology in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and an expert on hominin dental anatomy, has been comparing known hominid teeth to the new fossils. "I spent the last two summers looking at every fossil tooth I could get my hands on, and the new South African fossils don't match anything," Delezene said in a release. "We can find things that are similar, but nothing quite matches."

The fossils were found roughly 90 meters inside the cave entrance, hidden within a very narrow chute. While there are still many more fossils to be excavated, the team of researchers collected parts of at least 15 individuals, all of the same species. The findings ranged from infants to children, adults and elderly individuals. The scientists have yet to date the fossils, the release noted.

The researchers plan to continue studying this new species. One area they plan to focus on is the species' diet. They have developed 3D models from CT scans of the teeth, from which they will be able to compare their new discovery to previous findings. They also plan to solve the mystery of where exactly this new species fits into the broader scheme of human evolution.

Their findings have since been published in two journals. One of the studies that focuses on the discovery of Homo naledi can be found in eLife

More information regarding the discovery of Homo naledi is exaplined in Wits University video

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