Scientists have made a groundbreaking discovery that challenges our understanding of ancient human species. The research reveals that Homo naledi, despite having brains about a third the size of modern humans, practiced burial rituals and created engravings in a cave system in southern Africa around 300,000 years ago. This finding has significant implications for our knowledge of human beliefs, culture, and symbolism.
Traditionally, larger brains have been associated with higher intelligence. However, the revelation that Homo naledi engaged in burial practices and artistic expression suggests that our assumptions may have been incorrect.
These findings, documented in three studies accepted for publication in the journal eLife, shed light on our complex ancient history. The research is led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, who first reported the discovery of Homo naledi in 2013 in the Rising Star cave system near Johannesburg.
Berger and his team unearthed over 1,800 bone fragments in an underground chamber accessible only through a four-story vertical drop. The most plausible explanation for this situation is intentional burial, which could push back the timeline of “body burials” by at least 10,000 years.
Reports indicate that the positioning and preservation of some skeletal remains suggest a careful arrangement on the chamber floor rather than random scattering. National Geographic, which sponsored the research, highlights the significance of this discovery.
The Rising Star cave system has yielded more astonishing findings beyond burial practices. Engravings on rocks inside the cave indicate a cultural aspect of Homo naledi that could revolutionize our understanding of their behaviors. Although the carvings have not been dated, scientists argue that they were most likely created by Homo naledi, considering the absence of other remains in the caves.
Furthermore, evidence of fire usage within the cave system suggests the extinct hominin relied on fire for survival. However, the specific individuals responsible for making and controlling the fire remain unknown.
Based on these findings, scientists argue that brain size should not be the sole determinant of a species’ capacity for complex cognition. If all the hypotheses surrounding Homo naledi are validated, it would mean that with a brain capacity of less than 600 cubic centimeters (compared to the modern human brain’s 1,500 cubic centimeters), the species was capable of intricate burial practices, artistic expression, and the use of fire.
Berger emphasizes the need for a global conversation about these discoveries and how we should proceed. The cultural space of a non-modern human species like Homo naledi challenges us to consider our treatment and understanding of it.
The remarkable abilities displayed by Homo naledi with their relatively small brains raise questions about the use and potential of our larger brains as modern humans.