Unless you live in a cave yourself, it would’ve been hard to miss the big news about a new kind of hominin recently unearthed from deep inside a nearly-inaccessible South African one: Homo naledi.
The fossilized bones of this newly-discovered cousin (possibly even ancestor!) of ours is fascinating paleoanthropologists & their fan clubs with its never-seen-before combination of human-like legs & feet, Lucy-sized brain & pelvis (but with a more human-like cranium structure), & shoulders & hands still adapted to climbing, but with a more human-like thumb & wrist which would have enhanced manipulation.
All of this mixing-&-matching is interesting enough, but not really all that surprising due to discoveries in recent years of other bipedal primates with a ‘mosaic’ of features who lived between 2-5 million years ago: in particular, Ardipithicus ramidus (‘Ardi‘ – discovered by a preeminent U.S. paleoanthropologist, Tim White…see ‘naysayer’, below) & Australopithicus sediba (discovered by Lee Berger & unearthed near the cave where Homo naledi was found).
No, what’s remarkable about this particular early human primate species is the way in which these initial fossils from the Homo naledi site were excavated & analyzed, and the way in which information about Homo naledi is being shared. In other words, the amazing news is not necessarily the what, it’s the how.
Because the really big news is that all of this discovery & research was & still is being conducted via open access, via public & social media information channels, & with the active participation of a diverse group of younger, less ‘senior’ scientists than any human fossil discovery before now. That, and, it’s all happening before scientists have been able to figure out the age of the bones! Unbelievable…I love it!
Open access is definitely not your standard paleoanthropology operating procedure, where, for example, it can be more than 15 years between an important fossil discovery & when information is finally published in science journals; even then, access to many of these journals is only via a paywall, & access to the fossils themselves is nearly impossible. Not surprisingly, some of the field’s prominent elders aren’t as enthusiastic about open access as Homo naledi‘s lead scientists, Lee Berger & John Hawks (along with many others), but it seems to me the naysayer arguments are a bit thin; have been countered more than adequately; & are probably driven by not just a little bit of jealousy (…yes, scientists are human).
Because WOW! – there are also some other unusually phenomenal aspects of this discovery: the sheer number of fossil bones from various individuals, representing nearly all bones of the body, & all from a single hominin population deposited over time (- vs. some human ancestral species pronouncements which have been based on analysis of a single finger bone or tooth); and the location of the bones deep in an underground chamber of the Rising Star cave, with no evidence of other animal/plant fossils or of geological disturbances nearby that might explain how the bones got there. Huh?! The working theory is that dead bodies were deposited there by the living – we don’t know (yet?) whether their intention was to keep predators away or otherwise, or how they managed to get all those bodies into the chamber. And while this isn’t the first evidence of early human ‘burial’ (e.g., there’s quite a bit of evidence that Neandertals intentionally buried some of their dead), this intriguing new mystery about our ancestors has even religious folks interested in human evolution, & that’s sayin’ something!
For now, exciting research & learning about our newest relatives continues – via 3D-printing of the fossils, making them readily available to educational institutions as well as the general public; open access to the original eLife publications & fossil metrics; future additional fossil retrieval; & collaborative efforts to determine a date range for the treasure trove.
The Homo naledi fossil fun is just beginning!
Thank you to Lee Berger, John Hawks, & all the scientists & cavers working on this project for your commitment to open access.