Berger holds a cast of the Homo naledi skull at the Cradle
of Humankind World Heritage site near Johannesburg, South
Africa, May 9, 2017. James Oatway - REUTERS
KROMDRAAI, South Africa Scientists unveiled the first
evidence on Tuesday that early humans co-existed in Africa 300,000
years ago with a small-brained human-like species thought to already
be extinct on the continent at that time.
The findings, published in three papers in the journal "eLife,"
raise fresh questions about human evolution, including the prospect
that behaviors previously attributed to humans may have been developed
by hominin precursors of Homo sapiens.
Hominins are an extinct group of the same genus as humans, the
only surviving members of that category today. Man's nearest living
relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, are further removed from Homo
sapiens biologically than hominins are.
The species in question is Homo naledi, named in 2015 after
a rich cache of its fossils was unearthed near Sterkfontein and
Swartkrans in South Africa.
These treasure troves, 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg, have
yielded pieces of the puzzle of human evolution for decades.
Scientists initially thought Homo naledi's anatomy suggested
the fossils might be as much as 2.5 million years old and were startled
by evidence that suggested the species may have buried its dead,
a trait long believed to be uniquely human.
But dating of the sediments in which the fossils were found
and teeth of the specimens showed that the species was roaming the
African bush between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, around the time
that modern humans were emerging.
"No one thought that a small-brained, primitive hominin could
extend down through time this long and that period is exactly the
moment when we thought modern humans were arising here in Africa,"
said Lee Berger, project leader for Johannesburg's University of
naledi remains on display at the Cradle of Humankind World
Heritage site near Johannesburg, South Africa, May 9, 2017.
James Oatway - REUTERS
Berger said the dating may force scientists to rethink their
understanding of the emergence at that time of new technologies
such as ochre production and bead work for adornments.
There is archeological evidence from that period but little
in the way of fossils to suggest who exactly made such things.
"Now that we know that modern humans or at least the earliest
forms of them were not alone during this expansion of the tool kit,
it makes us now have to get better and better evidence to say who
made what," Berger told Reuters.
The question of when Homo naledi went extinct, and why, remains
unanswered, Berger said. Those pre-humans could have survived until
200,000 years ago or even more recently as the fossils uncovered
so far do not indicate "an extinction event."
Homo sapiens may have been the culprit. Some scientists believe
early modern humans drove other hominin relatives for example,
Neanderthals in Europe to extinction elsewhere.
"All we know is that Homo naledi is extinct today. Could Homo
sapiens have driven them extinct? Yes," Berger said.