Up next in our student series, Jenna Ason looks at Lee Berger’s recent Homo naledi discovery.
A Broader Perspective
In today’s world it can be easy to get caught up and lost in the complexities that dictate our everyday lives. One can easily become distracted and overwhelmed and lose sight of the fact that there is a great big wonderful world out there beyond our day-to-day existence. A world that has been here long before any of us were born, and a world that will be here long after all of us are gone. It is invaluable therefore to sometimes take a step back to examine that broad and wonderful world that we all call home. Perhaps one of the best ways to do that is to take a look at a small sliver of this incredible world, a treasure trove of history, the Rising Star Cave.
The Rising Star Cave is located just outside of Johannesburg in South Africa. In 2013, two cavers discovered an unknown cavern within the Rising Star Cave system that contained, what they believed to be, the fossilized remains from an early hominid. Lee Berger, an archaeologist known for his involvement in the discovery of Australopithecus sediba, quickly put together a team to excavate the chamber. The challenging part for him was the difficulty of getting into the chamber itself. With a very narrow and treacherous entrance (no bigger than 18cm at some points), Berger had to find very specialized individuals who were not only willing to drop everything to come to Africa, but additionally they had to be very small.
Within that chamber they discovered something new and extraordinary, Homo naledi. It was not remains from just one or two individuals that occupied this chamber. It was remains from many individuals ranging in age from infants to the very elderly. Reportedly, this age range is what one would expect to find in a graveyard or cemetery. Something incredibly interesting about the fossil remains was the fact that they seemed to have a mosaic of features. Some of the features seem nearly indistinguishable from modern man and some features resemble Australopithecus. A combination like that is a really rare find. Then there is the question of how the remains got there. One theory that was quickly discarded was that a predator dropped them there. With the remains from no other species (save those of a lone owl) found there, this theory could be difficult to find true as predators tend to prey on multiple species. Another theory is that perhaps this cave was a very early form of burial and disposal of the dead. This is very significant in that this could be an indication of a far more complex social structure before anyone ever dreamed it could exist.
Beyond being an incredibly exciting and interesting topic, for those of us who are students of Georgia Southern University, this story has a more personal appeal. Lee Berger got his undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Archaeology from Georgia Southern nearly thirty years ago. There is still much to be learned from the Rising Star Cave system. Perhaps it will a yield a great wealth of information about an ancestor of modern humanity, and perhaps not. Researchers say the surface has only been scratched and the future of Rising Star Cave appears to be promising. Regardless of what information it may or may not yield to us, it is a good reminder of the vastness that is our world.
Further Exploration and Sources:
The documentary: “Nova ‘Dawn of Humanity”, PBS/NOVA, 2014. Season 42 ep 15.
And more National Geographic articles than you can shake a stick at