Paleontologists in South Africa say they have found the world’s oldest known burial site, containing the remains of a small-brained distant relative of humans who were previously thought to be incapable of complex behaviour.
Researchers led by famous paleontologist Lee Berger said in June that they had discovered several specimens of these creatures Homo naledi – a stone-age tree-climbing human – is buried about 30 meters (100 feet) underground in a cave system within the Cradle of Humanity, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Johannesburg.
“These are the oldest burials yet recorded in the hominin record, before the evidence Homo sapiens Buried for at least 100 thousand years.” books In a series of pre-printed papers published in eLife.
The findings challenge the current understanding of human evolution, as the evolution of larger brains is typically thought to have allowed complex “meaning-making” activities such as burying the dead to be performed.
The oldest previously discovered burials, found in the Middle East and Africa, contained remains Homo sapiens – It was about 100,000 years old
Those found in South Africa by Berger, whose previous announcements have been controversial, and his fellow researchers, date back to at least 200,000 BC.
More importantly, they also belong to Homo nalediA primitive species at the crossroads between apes and modern humans, it had brains the size of an orange and stood about 1.5 meters (five feet) tall.
With curved fingers and toes, and hands and feet that use tools intended for walking, the species Berger discovered actually upended the idea that our evolutionary path was a straight line.
Homo naledi It was named after “Rising star“The cave system where the first bones were found in 2013.
Oval-shaped burials were also found in the New Studies Center during excavations that began in 2018.
The holes, which researchers say evidence suggests were deliberately dug and then filled to cover the bodies, contain at least five individuals.
“These discoveries show that funerary practices were not limited to Homo sapiens or other hominids with large brain sizes,” the researchers said.
The burial site is not the only sign of this Homo naledi They added that he was capable of complex emotional and cognitive behavior.
Engravings forming geometric shapes, including a “rough hashtag shape”, were also found on the apparently intentionally smooth surfaces of a nearby cave column.
“This does not mean that humans are not only unique in developing symbolic practices, but that they may not have invented such behaviors,” Berger said in an interview with AFP.
Such statements are likely to upset some in the world of paleontology, as the 57-year-old has previously faced accusations of a lack of scientific accuracy and hasty conclusions.
Many balked when Berger, whose previous discoveries had been supported by him, visited in 2015 National Geographicfirst aired the idea of it Homo naledi It was capable of more than its suggested head size
“This was too much for scientists at the time. We think it’s all related to this big brain,” he said.
“We’re about to tell the world that’s not true.”
Although they require further analysis, the findings “change our understanding of human evolution,” the researchers wrote.
“Burial, meaning-making and even art can have a more complex and dynamic non-human history than we previously thought.” He said Augustin Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, who co-authored the studies.
“These findings, if confirmed, would be of great potential importance,” said Carol Ward, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri who was not involved in the research.
“I look forward to seeing how the disposal of the remains precludes possible explanations other than intentional burial, and to seeing the results once they have been examined by peer review,” she told AFP.
Ward also noted that the paper acknowledged that it could not rule out that the marks on the walls might have been made by later hominins.
© Agence France-Presse
A previous version of this article was published in June 2023.
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