Human origins. Who are we? Where do we come from, and how do we know? In my field, paleoanthropology, we explore human origins—the "who" and "where" questions—by analyzing fossils that date back thousands and even millions of years. In 2015, a team of colleagues and I named a new species in the genus Homo—our genus—Homo naledi. Let's take a step back and put that into context.
The last common ancestors between humans and chimps date somewhere between six and eight million years. The earliest hominins, or earliest human ancestors, evolved into a group known as the australopithecines. The australopithecines evolved into the genus Homo and eventually modern humans—us.
With each new fossil discovery, we get a little bit closer to better understanding who we are and where we came from. With these new fossil finds, we realize we now have to make changes to this tree. Until this discovery, we thought we had a pretty good idea about the patterns of evolutionary change. Current fossil evidence suggests that the earliest populations of the genus Homo evolved in Africa somewhere between two and three million years. Fast-forward to approximately 300,000 years to where we see the origins of the first modern humans. While the fossil record between these time frames in Africa is relatively sparse, the fossils nonetheless demonstrated certain trends from our earliest ancestors to modern humans. For example, our brains were becoming larger relative the rest of our body. Our pelves were becoming more bowl-shaped, and our hand-wrist morphology, or form, suggested a change in our grip as we began to make and use stone tools and spend less time in the trees. These new fossils disrupt everything we thought we knew about these trends and force us to change the way that we think about human evolution.
South Africa in general, but the Cradle of Humankind in particular, contains numerous sites where hundreds of thousands of fossils have been found. As an undergraduate student, I fell in love with one of them...Mrs. Ples. The skull of a 2.1-million-year-old early human ancestor. From that point on, I was determined to go to South Africa and study human evolution. I first traveled there in 2003, and I did get to see my beloved Mrs. Ples.
But words can hardly convey my excitement when I was chosen as an early career scientist by Lee Berger, a world-renowned paleoanthropologist, to be one of the primary analysts of recently excavated unpublished fossils.
This treasure trove of fossils was being recovered from a new site called the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star cave system. Species are often named based on a skull, a lower jaw, or, very rarely, a handful of postcranial, or below-the-neck, elements. The fossils from Dinaledi were another story altogether. An unprecedented approximately 1800 specimens—so far—have been excavated from the Rising Star system, representing at least 15 individual skeletons. The research team that I was invited to join was tasked with describing, comparing and analyzing the fossils, with the difficult goal of identifying to what species the fossils belonged. We were divided up into our different areas of expertise. We were divided up in different areas of the lab, too. So there was "Hand Land," for the fossil hand people, "Hip Heaven" for the pelvis...I was in the "Tooth Booth."
And after long, intense days in the lab, the different teams would meet up at night and discuss our findings, still consumed by questions from our analyses. It was incredible how different the interpretations were. Each body part seemed to come from a different species, based on what we knew from the fossil record. The suite of characteristics we were seeing didn't match any known species. And if we had only recovered the skull, we might have called it one thing; if we had only recovered the pelvis, we might have called it another. The anatomy of the skeletons didn't make sense with the framework of what we thought we knew of human evolution. Did it belong in the genus Homo? Should it be an australopithecine? Those bipedal, more apelike ancestors? Or perhaps it should be its own species.
Ultimately, after much deliberation, we decided the Rising Star specimens did indeed warrant a new species, which we called "Homo naledi." From the head to the feet, the fossils present a mosaic of primitive, or ancestral, and derived or more modern-like features. The skull is quite derived, appearing most similar to early representatives of the genus Homo, like Homo habilis and Homo erectus. However, the brain is scarcely half the size of a modern human one. One that is smaller than any other early Homo that has ever been found.
As someone who studies teeth, I might argue these are the coolest fossils found at the site.
The assemblage consists of 190 whole or fragmentary teeth that range in age from very old to very young. Like the skeletons, the teeth present a mix of primitive and derived traits. In modern humans, the third molar is typically the smallest, while the first molar is the biggest, but Homo naledi has the primitive condition where the third molar is the biggest and the first molar is the smallest. The anterior teeth, or the incisors and canines, are small for the genus Homo, and the lower canine has a cuspulid on it—an extra cuspule that gives it a distinct mitten-like shape that it shares with some specimens of the early human, Homo erectus. The overall shape of the teeth looked odd to me, so I performed crown-shape analysis on the occlusal surfaces of deciduous teeth, or baby teeth—on your left—and the permanent premolars and molars on your right. The deciduous teeth are especially narrow, and the premolars are unique in their outline shape compared to other hominids.
In fact, when I compare the outlines, when I lay them on top of each other, they look very similar. We say they have "low intraspecific variations," so the variation within the species is low. When I compare this to groups like the australopithecines, the intraspecific variation is much larger.
Postcranially, the team concluded that the position of the shoulders suggesting naledi was a climber; the flared pelvis and curved fingers are all primitive for the genus Homo. On the other hand, the humanlike wrist, long slender legs and modern feet are all consistent with other members of the genus.
In 2017, we announced more specimens of Homo naledi from the nearby Lesedi Chamber, also in the Rising Star cave system. In addition, our geology team managed to produce an age estimate. The date's a big deal because, up until now, we had based our analysis solely on the morphology of the specimens, without previous knowledge of how old something is—something which could unconsciously bias our interpretations. With its small brain and flared pelvis, we would not have been surprised if the fossils turned out to be two million years old. Instead, the fossils dated to 235 to 336 thousand years, an incredibly young date for such a small-brained individual.
So think back to what I said earlier: we thought that our brains were becoming larger relative to the rest of our body. Now we have a small-brained, young individual complicating this idea. What does all this mean?
Homo naledi has taught us that we need to reassess what it means to be in the genus Homo. We need to rethink what it means to be human. In fact, most of the characteristics that we use to define the genus Homo, such as brain size and hip morphology, are no longer valid. No other species exists with this mix of primitive and derived traits. Why is there so much morphological variation in the genus Homo? And what force is driving that variation?
Another implication for these fossils is that for the first time, we have concrete evidence of a species coexisting in Africa, at 300,000 years, with modern humans. Until this discovery, we only had large-brained modern humans that existed in Africa. Did they interbreed with each other? Did they compete with each other?
Another implication that these fossils have is for the archaeologists studying stone tools in South Africa. Keep in mind that neither the Dinaledi nor the Lesedi Chambers have any artifacts in them. However, they do overlap in time with several stone-tool industries, the makers of which are considered to be either modern humans or direct human ancestors. This begs the question: Who made the stone tools of South Africa? Brain size has historically played a key role in identifying a species as a tool user. The idea is that you need to have a large brain to have even the capacity to make stone tools. But that notion has been questioned. Furthermore, Homo naledi, even with its small brain size, has a hand-wrist morphology similar to other species that did make and use stone tools, suggesting it had the capability. With two species coexisting in Africa at 300,000 years, we can no longer assume we know the maker of tools at sites with no associated species.
So where does Homo naledi fit in our human evolutionary lineage? Who is it most closely related to? Who did it evolve from? We're still trying to figure all that out. It's ironic, because paleoanthropologists are renowned for having small sample sizes. We now have a large sample size, and more questions than answers. Homo naledi has taught us, has brought us a little bit closer to better understanding our evolutionary past. So while Mrs. Ples will always hold a special place in my heart, she now shares that space with several thousand others.