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Homo naledi captivates the world

10 September 2015

The discovery of a new species, Homo naledi, is expected to catch the imagination and stimulate the interest of people across the world, says Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

He said the discovery of the new species in Maropeng, at the Cradle of Humankind, situated about 50km northwest of Johannesburg, will attract national and international tourists, who are excited about knowledge and learning, into the country.

“It will encourage us to enquire further about the whole scope of human existence, the world around us, and the world before us.”

Earlier today, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), the National Geographic Society, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF) announced the discovery of Homo naledi.

Deputy President Ramaphosa said research at the Cradle of Humankind will yield yet more information for decades to come.

“These discoveries underline the fact that despite our individual differences in appearance, language, beliefs and cultural practices, we are bound together by a common ancestry.

“The discovery will be written in the history books. At least something new is coming out of Africa. In time, this is going to reveal more about ourselves,” he said.

Rising Star Expeditions

Consisting of more than 1 550 numbered fossil elements, the discovery is the single largest fossil hominid find yet made on the continent of Africa.

Homo naledi was named after the Rising Star cave, “Naledi” which means “star” in Sesotho, a local South African language.

The fossil material was recovered in two expeditions, conducted in November 2013 and March 2014, dubbed the Rising Star Expeditions.

In the initial expedition, over a period of 21 days, more than 60 cavers and scientists worked together in what was described as “some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions ever encountered in the search for human origins”.

The fossils were analysed in a unique workshop in May 2014 funded by the South African Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation, Wits University and National Geographic.

More than 50 experienced scientists and early career researchers came together to study and analyse the treasure trove of fossils and to compose scientific papers.

Ground-breaking discovery

Award-winning researcher, paleoanthropologist, physical anthropologist and archaeologist, Professor Lee Berger, lead the team that made the discovery in the Rising Star.

“This is the most interesting discovery on our soil and this is going to put the country on the map,” he said, adding that this will draw more scientists to the country.

“The discovery is as a result of the outstanding work by the team,” he said, adding that the discovery was an extra-ordinary experience.

He described the team of scientists who were working with him as heroes.

Vice Chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habid, said the discovery was a historic moment in the world. “Scientific achievement gave us hope,” he said.

Terry Garcia, the National Geographic Society’s Chief Science and Exploration Officer, said this was a “tremendously significant find”.

Garcia said after receiving a call about the discovery, they immediately agreed to support the initiative. “We immediately committed our support to this remarkable effort,” he said.

Physical features of Homo naledi

According to scientists, Homo naledi is a bit smaller and a lot older than people, with curved fingers and a small skull, but in some ways the species is also strikingly similar to humankind.  

Homo naledi’s teeth are described as similar to those of the earliest-known members of human genus, such as Homo habilis, as are most features of the skull.

Research shows the average Homo naledi was 1.5 metres tall and weighed about 45kg. Homo naledi had a brain the size of an orange and a slender body. The shoulders, however, are more similar to those of apes.

SAnews.gov.za

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