Humans Buried Their Dead 300,000 Years Ago, Cave Finds Indicate

Archaeologists were surprised to find primitive Homo naledi apparently coexisted with Homo sapiens in South Africa

Homo naledi skull from the Lesedi Chamber, in the Rising Star cave system near the sea in South Africa. The bones found in the cave have been dated to 226,000 and 335,000 years ago, younger than the archaeologists had anticipated.
Homo naledi skull, younger than the archaeologists had anticipated. John Hawks, Wits University

A fresh haul of bones from the mysterious primitive man Homo naledi, dating to over a quarter-million years ago, have been found in the bowels of a South African cave.

The discovery of multiple bodies in an extremely hard-to-reach chamber within the cave system has reignited an academic squabble over whether this ancient hominin was deliberately interring its dead.

If so, Homo naledi's brain may have been a fraction the size of ours, but he had rudimentary culture, too.

The bones dated to about a quarter-million years, 226,000 and 335,000 years ago, about the same time the much larger-brained Homo sapiens was rising in Africa. The two species, and maybe plenty of other human variants, evidently coexisted in the late Middle Pleistocene. The archaeologists said they were surprised at the "young" age of the fossils, thinking their primitive aspect meant they were older.

Once, archaeologists assumed that after his evolution, superior Homo sapiens existed in glorious lonesome. But not only did Homo naledi apparently coexist with our forefathers and possibly with other hominins too. It seems we were not alone until about 10,000 years ago, when the last-known alternative human species, Red Deer Cave Man, died out in China.

Respect for the dead?

Homo naledi, which seems to have existed for about two million years and may or may not be one of our forefathers, was first discovered in 2013, in the Rising Star cave system near the sea in South Africa.

Then, fossils from at least 15 individuals were found, in a chamber of the cave that became dubbed the Dinaledi Chamber. The gathering of the bodies in a fairly inaccessible part of the cave system led to the theory that they had been placed there deliberately, after death, rather than dragged there for instance by disoriented hyenas.

Now, about 100 meters deeper in the maze of the Rising Star, the archaeologists found at least three juvenile and adults in another void, called the Lesedi chamber. Like the first chamber, Lesedi is also exceedingly difficult to access, says the tea: they had to "crawl, climb and squeeze their way in pitch dark" to find the fossil cache.

Hyenas wouldn't have gone to all that trouble. "This likely adds weight to the hypothesis that Homo naledi was using dark, remote places to cache its dead," Hawks observes. "What are the odds of a second, almost identical occurrence happening by chance?"

This is a schematic of the Lesedi chamber section of the Rising Star cave system in South Africa, where remains of Homo naledi have been found.
Marina Elliott, Wits University

That level of cultural sophistication had not been expected in a species preceding Man: it suggests keen intelligence and possibly the first stirrings of culture.

The fossils found in the Dinaldi chamber come from two adults and a child, about 5 years old.

"What is so provocative about Homo naledi is that these are creatures with brains one third the size of ours," Hawks says. "This is clearly not a human, yet it seems to share a very deep aspect of behavior that we recognize, an enduring care for other individuals that continues after their deaths. It awes me that we may be seeing the deepest roots of human cultural practices." Or not.

It bears saying at this point that the spate of speculation about the cultural Neanderthal has not been even remotely proven: there is very little possible evidence that could point to a Neanderthal sartorial or musical sense, let alone art. Neanderthals may have liked pretty rocks, but it isn't proven that Neanderthals buried their dead, ceremoniously or otherwise, though the theory has been raised.

Prof. Frederick L. Coolidge of the University of Colorado is one who suspects the hullaballoo about the cultured Neanderthal is wildly overdone: they had different brain shapes than we do, left qualitatively different artifacts and, he sums up, they went extinct, he wrote to Haaretz. So did Homo naledi.

The Dinaledi chamber, in the Rising Star cave system, where remains of Homo naledi have been found.
Marina Elliott, Wits University