New Human Ancestor Discovered

Scientists reacted with a mix of awe and exasperation to the news Thursday of the discovery of fossils in South Africa that are said to define a new species of human ancestor, Homo naledi. The awe was inspired mostly by the sheer number of fossils—more than 1,500 bones, all of them from a remote chamber in the cave system called Rising Star, 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg.

“It’s a stunning collection of bones, unlike any we’ve seen before,” said Carol Ward, a paleoanthropologist at the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri.

Like other scientists, however, Ward tempered her enthusiasm with frustration at the discovery team’s decision to publish before more information could be gathered—most importantly, on the age of the bones.

Homo naledi sports a bizarre mixture of primitive and modern traits. It has a tiny ape-like brain perched on a body proportioned much like a small modern human; it has ape-like shoulders and torso, curved fingers for climbing trees—and a remarkably human foot. The mix hints at a species close to the origin of the genus Homo, between two million and three million years ago.

But dating fossils solely by what they look like is a highly risky business. Traits from a primitive ancestor can be retained in a skeleton alongside ones that have evolved toward a more modern form. The fossils could be much younger or—less likely—much older than their morphology suggests …… read more + video —> homo-naledi-human-ancestor

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