New relative of the human species discovered in South African cave

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A new member of the human species has been discovered by scientists in South Africa after they found huge trove of bones in a chamber of a cave which was barely accessible.

Scientists had to squeeze their way through passages which were as narrow as 7.5 inches and questions have been raised on the age of the bones discovered and how did they get into that chamber that is reachable by a complex pathway only.

The creature discovered was named Homo naledi that reflects the “Homo” evolutionary group and the fossils represent about 15 individuals. The cave is found about 30 miles in the northwest of Johannesburg.

Researchers said that the creature walked upright representing a mix of characters. That is, their hands and feet were like Homo where as the shoulders and the small brain were more or less like the Homo’s ape-like ancestors.

Lee Berger, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, said naledi’s structure started at the root of the Homo group making the species 2.5 million to 2.8 million years old. However, he said the discovered bones may be younger.

The discovery was announced on Thursday in the eLife journal and through a press conference in the Cradle of Humankind near the Magaliesburg village. Researchers said they were not able to determine the age of the fossils but they are still working on it. Naledi is not a direct ancestor of modern-day people, researchers claimed. Experts who are not connected to the project also have the same opinion.

Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum, said the age of these fossils need to be known so that we can judge the evolutionary significance of this research. Eric Delson from Lehman College in New York guessed that naledi fits within a known group of early Homo creatures from 2 million years ago.

The mystery behind how the bones got into such a difficult-to-reach area of the cave is still unknown. Researchers suspected that it is possible that naledi repeatedly deposited their dead in the cave and alternatively, it may have been a death trap for creatures who found their own way in.

Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., declared that this research is like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Artificial light such as a torch must have been created by visitors of the cave and people who did cave drawings in Europe had such type of technology. However, no one has suspected the mental ability of naledi with such a small brain.

A deliberate disposal of dead bodies in the cave is a feasible explanation but it is not clear who did the disposing, Potts said.  It could be some human relative other than naledi.

Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, claimed that not everybody agreed that the discovery disclosed a new species. The fossils could belong to a primitive Homo erectus which is a species named in the 1800s, he said in an email.