Scientists discover World’s oldest burial site in South Africa

Ben Ebuka June 28, 2023
Other scientific discoveries regarding Homo Naledi have been made across the continent, including the single-largest fossil hominine discovery in Africa by scientists from diverse parts of the world in 2015. Photo credit: GovernmentZA via Flickr

Paleontologists have unearthed the world’s oldest burial site in South Africa, containing remains of Homo Naledi, a small-brained distant relative of humans previously known to be incapable of complex behavior.

 National Geographic Explorer in Residence and world-renowned paleoanthropologist, Lee Berger, led a team of researchers that unearthed the new evidence; Homo naledi – a tree-climbing, Stone Age hominid, buried about 30 meters (100 feet) underground in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa – UNESCO world heritage site near Johannesburg.

The extinct near-human species used meaning-making symbols to bury their dead; the two behaviors which the world earlier thought to be exclusive to hominins with much larger brains.

 “These are the most ancient interments yet recorded in the hominin record, earlier than evidence of Homo sapiens interments by at least 100,000 years,” the scientists wrote in a series of yet-to-be peer-reviewed scientific papers.

The burials, symbols, and interpretation of the findings are now available as preprints for immediate download from BioRxiv, pending the subsequent official publication as eLife Reviewed Preprints.

“Funded by the National Geographic Society, Berger and his team – including fellow National Geographic Explorers, Dr. Keneiloe Molopyane – lead excavator in the Dragon’s Back chamber, and Agustín Fuentes, on-site biocultural specialist, identified depressions deep in the chambers of the Rising Star cave system. Bodies of H. naledi adults and several children estimated to be younger than 13 years of age were deposited in fetal positions, which suggests intentional burial of the dead,” National Geographic stated on its website.

“The interments predate the earliest known Homo sapiens burials by at least 100,000 years, making the Rising Star burials some of the most ancient in the hominin record and indicating that burials might not have been limited to H. sapiens or other hominins with larger brain sizes,” National Geographic added.

Additionally, the researchers discovered engraved symbols on the cave walls, including deeply impressed cross-hatchings and other geometric shapes on surfaces that appeared to have been prepared and smoothed, suggesting a time of 241,000 to 335,000 years old.

“These recent findings suggest intentional burials, the use of symbols, and meaning-making activities by Homo naledi. It seems an inevitable conclusion that in combination they indicate that this small-brained species of ancient human relatives was performing complex practices related to death,” said Berger.

Fuentes, who is also a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, said, “To be inside the caves, inside the world of Homo naledi, is not only a life-changing adventure, but what we’ve uncovered forces us to rethink a whole set of assumptions about hominins and human evolution.”

The Rising Star cave system in South Africa has remained one of the most successful sites for hominin fossils in the world, with the recent findings adding a new chapter to what the world knows about the human origin story.

The discovery suggests that mortuary practices were not exclusive to just large-brained hominins, challenging the existing understanding of human evolution that assumed that the development of larger brains enabled the performance of complex ‘meaning-making’ activities such as burying the dead.

The first Homo naledi fossils were found in the Dinaledi chamber in 2013 by Berger and his team.

Previously unearthed interment of Homo sapiens, thought to be the oldest known burial in the hominin record, dated back 100,000 years. However, the newly-identified burial site dates back at least 200,000 years.

According to the researchers, evidence suggests that burial holes in the cave were deliberately dug and filled in to cover the buried bodies and contained at least five individuals.

 “That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors,” Berger told AFP in an interview.

While further analysis is underway, the discoveries “alter our understandings of human evolution,” the researchers wrote.

Other scientific discoveries regarding Homo Naledi have been made across the continent, including the single-largest fossil hominine discovery in Africa by scientists from diverse parts of the world in 2015.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: June 28, 2023


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