WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 5, 2023) –– In their search to understand human origins, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and world-renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and his team unearthed new evidence in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa suggesting Homo naledi –– an extinct hominin species –– buried their dead and used symbols for meaning-making, both behaviors that were thought to be exclusive to large-brained hominins. These findings could be some of the earliest examples of mortuary practices and meaning-making by a small-brained hominin, thus altering our understanding of human evolution. Scientific papers on the burials, symbols, and interpretation of the findings are available as preprints for immediate download from BioRxiv, and will be published subsequently 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.
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.
Additionally, the team found engraved symbols on the cave walls, which could be 241,000 to 335,000 years old and will be further tested. These symbols, which include deeply impressed cross-hatchings and other geometric shapes, were found on surfaces that appeared to have been prepared and smoothed. The lines appeared to have been made repeatedly by carefully passing a pointed or sharp tool through the grooves. The creation of similar symbols has also been documented in Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) from almost 60,000 years ago and early Homo sapiens in South Africa from about 80,000 years ago. Such intentional designs, which are widely interpreted as signifying, recording, and transmitting information in a durable manner, are recognized as a major cognitive step in human evolution.
“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. “That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors.”
The Rising Star cave system has become one of the most fruitful sites for hominin fossils in the world. The new findings by Berger and team add a new chapter to what we know about the human origin story.
“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,” said Fuentes, professor of anthropology at Princeton University. “Much of what we assumed was distinctively human, and distinctively caused by having a large brain, may not be either of those things. Burial, meaning-making, even ‘art’ could have a much more complicated, dynamic, non-human history than we previously thought.”
The first H. naledi fossils were found in the Dinaledi chamber in 2013 by Berger and his team. The chamber is exceptionally narrow, requiring Berger to lose 55 pounds so he could traverse the chamber himself in 2022. He and his team continue to uncover new evidence about how H. naledi lived.
“With each new finding, Lee shifts our understanding of human evolution,” said Jill Tiefenthaler, the Society’s Chief Executive Officer. “The Society is proud to support Lee, Agustín, Keneiloe, and the rest of their team who are making significant contributions to science and exploration in their pursuit of answers about our ancient past.”
Read more about these findings on NatGeo.com. Additionally, on August 8, 2023, National Geographic Books will release Berger’s book, “Cave of Bones: A True Story of Discovery, Adventure, and Human Origins.” The book dives into the true-life scientific adventure, taking readers deep into South African caves as Berger and team uncover H. naledi fossil remains that compel a reframing of the human family tree. Berger’s findings will also be shown in Netflix’s “UNKNOWN: Cave of Bones” which premieres on July 17 as one of the films in a four-part docuseries event. He will also be announcing these findings at the Richard Leakey Memorial Conference at Stony Brook University on June 5 at 3:50 p.m. ET. Tune in to the livestream here.