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A Real-Life Bone Collector: Recovering an Extinct Human Ancestor

Follow biological anthropologist and ‘bone collector’ Dr. Marina Elliott deep into the ancient underground crevasses that would reveal around 1,500 bone fragments belonging to Homo naledi, a new species in human lineage that has a combination of features not yet found in the fossil record. In the cave system located northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa — where some passages might only be eight inches wide — Elliott and the all-woman Rising Star Expedition team excavated the remains:

The discovery of our new but extinct family member Homo naledi—named after Rising Star Cave, as naledi means “star” in a local South African language—is turning our understanding of our past on its head just a bit. Homo naledi appears to be one of the most primitive known species in the human genus, with a small brain and ape-like features. But H. naledi also has some more humanlike features that distinguish it from any other known early human ancestors. It has curved fingers good for climbing, feet and legs suited for long-distance walking, and H. naledi may have even engaged in ritualized behavior.

“There’s a lot of books about human origins and human evolution. For a long time, I think we thought we sort of wrapped it up. What Homo naledi has done is kind of forced a whole scale rethink of that. The family tree that we always think about, and have been adding little twigs and branches to along the way, actually may be a lot bushier than we ever really realized. In fact, that whole tree analogy may not be a good analogy at all. A lot of these branches actually rejoined each other and became something else. The relationships of past species and past populations is a lot more complicated than we had originally assumed.

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With more remains to discover, Elliott will be leading excavation teams down into the caves well into the future. Read more at National Geographic about the expedition and findings: This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?

See more videos from the dig: Deep in the caves with Homo Naledi & the Rising Star Expedition.

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