A remarkable finding about an early hominin shows that having a bigger brain may not mean you are smarter after all.
Homo naledi was a species that was found in 2013 in the Rising Star cave system in Africa’s Cradle of Humankind. It had human-like hands and feet, but its brain was only a third the size of a human brain, which scientists had thought meant it was much less smart than its Homo sapiens relatives.
But the idea that species with bigger brains are smarter may not be true now that scientists have made a dangerous trip into the Rising Star cave and found that the species that lived there between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago were buried and marked the graves of its dead.
Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence told ABC News that it is the first non-human species ever known to do this.
During continued excavations in 2018, the researchers started to think that Homo naledi buried its dead. In July 2022, Berger and his team found the skeletons of Homo naledi and carvings on the wall above them that showed who had been buried there. This not only proved but also strengthened the researchers’ ideas.
Berger said that the symbols were circles, squares, and something like a “hashtag” sign, which looked like two equal signs crossed over each other. But it’s not clear what these carvings mean, and scientists will look into whether Homo naledi and humans used the same marks by “chance” or because they came from a common ancestor.
It is not clear if Homo naledi and Homo sapiens, who lived at the same time about 250,000 years ago, ever met or talked to each other. Researchers are still looking at the molecular biology of the bones to see if they have anything in common with people.
The result was “striking” and “shocking,” and it puts an end to the idea that humans are different from animals and special because they have big brains. Berger said that people used to think that traditional burials were only done by humans because Homo naledi had a brain about the size of a chimpanzee’s.
Based on where the bones were found in the cave and the rooms next to them, Berger said, scientists also learned that Homo naledi had a fire and what kinds of animals they ate. Before the discovery, researchers didn’t know anything about how the species lived. They might have even put things in the graves of the dead.
“All of a sudden, we went from having great lessons about the anatomy of a species to learning about a whole culture,” Berger said.
The species is known for having small heads and tall, skinny bodies that don’t seem to fit the time when they lived.
“They looked like they should have lived millions of years ago, but they lived between 250,000 and 350,000 years ago,” Berger said. This is the same time that modern people are changing.
It’s also not clear when Homo naledi died out, which is one of the many reasons why Berger calls Homo naledi a “wonderfully enigmatic” species.
Berger said, “It was an amazing scientific moment that will lead to more science, exploration, and discoveries over the next few decades.”
The tweet below verifies the news:
Homo naledi, an extinct human relative, buried dead and carved symbols long before modern humans, new research at the Rising Star cave system in South Africa found https://t.co/1uJIaCU2tG
— CNN (@CNN) June 6, 2023
Rising Star is one of the best-known caves in the Cradle of Humankind, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. However, only a few dozen people have been inside it. But none of the amateur spelunkers or even some of the pros ever found the real wonders of the cave.
Berger found a “narrow, shoot-like labyrinth” that led to the room where the bones were found after making a map of the cave in 2008.
Berger had to lose 55 pounds to get into the cave. The slot he had to slide into to get into the cave was only 7.5 inches wide, and the cave was 11 to 12 inches wide at its widest spots. The cave can’t be made bigger because it would weaken the building and hurt any artifacts or bones that are down there.
The 40-foot trip down the pitch-black shoot was “torture,” because it was hard to move the body. At one point, Berger got stuck and dislocated his shoulder and tore his rotator cuff. He said that it took him 15 minutes to get down and more than an hour to get back up. There was no way to use tools to help get through.
Berger was too big to get into the room with the carvings. His friends who were smaller were able to do it. He is still getting physical training, so he can’t fully raise his right arm.
“But every moment of it was worth it,” he said.
If you are interested in learning more about this subject, I suggest checking out the following links:
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Berger was also involved in the research that led to the discovery of Australopithecus sediba in 2008 at the Malapa site, which is also in the heart of Africa. Between 1.977 and 1.98 million years ago, Australopithecus sediba lived.
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