An international team of 60 scientists announced Thursday they have found the fossilized remains of a previously undiscovered species of human ancestors in South Africa.
The early human ancestral species was discovered in an underground chamber. The scientists were tipped off by spelunkers two years prior who saw the remains through a crack in a limestone wall. Lead scientist Lee R. Berger, an paleoanthropologist who teaches human evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, reported that the fossilized species has been named Homo naledi.
“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” Berger said, according to National Geographic.
Details of the discovery were first published by the team of scientists on eLife. According to their report, the remains of at least 15 individuals have already been found, with even more expected to be uncovered. Additionally, the site is the largest of any hominin species found in Africa and one of the largest in the world.
“We explored every alternative scenario, including mass death, an unknown carnivore, water transport from another location or accidental death in a death trap, among others,” Berger said according to the Financial Times. “In [rejecting] every other option, we were left with intentional body disposal by Homo naledi as the most plausible scenario.”
The report also noted that back about 100,000 years, there were several different human-like species in the homo family. Modern humans are the only species in the family left. The discovery also shows some early hominin species intentionally put bodies in remote caves. Such a practice has only be observed in modern humans and Neanderthals.
“Homo naledi appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behavior previously thought limited to humans,” the researchers said according to Bloomberg. “So far, the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals of the same species, a small fraction of the fossils believed to remain in the chamber.”
At the moment it is difficult to determine the age of the fossils. Based on evolutionary traits, The New York Times reports, they are believed to be around 2.5 million to 2.8 million years old.
The discovery is already attracting a lot of attention. It will be featured on the October issues of National Geographic Magazine and in a two hour PBS documentary set to air Wednesday.
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