Expedition in SA uncovers new human ancestor

September 10, 2015, 1:34pm

Photo by John Hawks, Wits University

By Lela Online Writer, based off live-streamed coverage of event by News 24

A monumental fossil discovery made at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site in Maropeng was revealed today. The fossils found will alter theories of human evolution and provide insight into the past of our ancestors.

An international team of more than 60 scientists, led by Professor Lee Berger of the University of Witswatersrand, were part of the expedition that began in November 2013. The research for the expedition was performed under the Department of Science and Technology as well as the National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence at Wits.

The recently found fossils and bones will add to the list of other significant discoveries made at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site that have unravelled the mystery of human evolution. These discoveries include skulls and feet bones from a species of human ancestors known as the Australopithecus.

The fruits of the expedition were revealed at an event earlier today. Speakers at the event included Terry Garcia, the Chief Science and Exploration Officer at National Geographic, Lebongang Maile, the Acting Premier as well as Adam Habib, Wits Vice Chancellor, whom all stressed the importance of the discovery.

Deputy President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, stressed that besides the fossils relevance to our pasts, "The discovery of the new species of hominid will probably tell us about our future as well. It will inspire poets and writers. We expect that it will catch the imagination and stimulate the interest of people around the globe. This discovery will help us tell the story of our common history."

He continued, "Today we unearth our past. We also unearth knowledge of our present."

Professor Lee Burger, the leader of the expedition, then took the stage. Although the expedition was only two years long, he stressed that 90 years of exploration had occurred in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site beginning with the discovery of the first hominin fossils in 1924.

Burger noted the serendipitous discovery, "We had gone into that cave with the idea of recovering one fossil - led to the discovery of multiple skeleton. Largest assemblage of fossil relatives ever discovered in the history of South Africa."

He announced the discovery of a new species of human ancestor, which the team has called homo naledi.

"Homo naledi is an extraordinary species. We have found more than 15 people of all ages. It was clear the legs and feet were used for long distance walking. The hands are more humanlike than Australopithecus. Their hips are like those of the famous Lucy skeleton," he explained.

Professor Paul Dirks, also one of the expedition's team members, commented on the geology of the site. Because of the lack of marks on the bones from carnivores or other sources, "That has led us to the rather remarkable conclusion that we have met a new species that has disposed of it dead."

The discovery of the homo naledi has opened new doors towards understanding the evolution of mankind and has begun to alter preconceived notions of burial, a tradition commonly associated with modern mankind.