10 of History’s Most Fascinating Archaeological Finds

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3. Fossils in South African Cave Demonstrate That Early Hominids Buried Their Dead

In 2013, a treasure trove of fossilized hominid skeletons was discovered in a South African cave, 30 miles from Johannesburg. About 1550 skeletal pieces from 15 individuals were unearthed. The fossils combined anatomical features from an early hominid species known as Australopithecus, such as a small braincase volume, with the skull shape of the more advanced early Homo. That combination of features led scientists to assume that the fossils came from an early hominid species about 2 million years old.

It was a reasonable ballpark initial guess, since hominids with those types of anatomical features were known to have existed around that time. However, by 2017, the fossils had been more accurately dated to between 335,000 to 236,000 years ago. They were thus not part of the lineage leading to modern humans, but an extinct and more primitive hominid that coexisted with more modern Homos. The new species was dubbed Homo naledi.

The excitement about the newly discovered species was not limited to the sheer number of bones, however. The condition and placement of those bones also upended preexisting assumptions about the behavior of primitive hominids. The bones lacked gnaw marks indicating that they had been dragged into the cave by carnivores. Between that and their placement deep in a shaft that they were unlikely to have ended up in by accident, it became clear that the bones had been deliberately placed in the cave by other Homo naledi individuals. I.e.; they were buried.

It was not the earliest known burial, as 28 skeletons dating to about 430,000 had been discovered years earlier in a Spanish cave. However, the Spanish skeletons came from a big brained Homo species that looked and behaved much like modern humans. Homo naledi on the other hand had a brain half the size of ours, and could not have been mistaken for a modern human. However, its burial practices demonstrated that its individuals understood mortality and the concept of something after death. That  squashed the hitherto prevailing notion that such understanding and behavior required big brains, and forced a reexamination of early hominids’ culture and intelligence.

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