Who were Homo naledi?

Does this group of hominids change our perception on human intelligence?
08 August 2023


A cave.



One of the stories that's recently been in the news recently is this question about Homo naledi. Tell us about that. What is Homo naledi? Remind us who that is and why it's in the news.


Emma - Homo naledi is really, really interesting. They're a species of human ancestor that dates to about 235 to 335 thousand years ago. So they come from one site only, called Rising Star Cave in South Africa. And they're really remarkable because actually by this point in evolution, so 300,000 years ago, we're seeing the origins of our own species Homo sapiens, most of our evolutionary relatives that are close to us already have quite large brains. They're quite tall, and yet naledi has a small brain, not much bigger than a chimpanzee, quite small in terms of their stature, averaging under five foot. And yet there's this remarkable site at Rising Star Cave where up to 15 individuals or more have all been found deep in this really hard to access cave, and it's the only site we know them from. So this is really, really fascinating. What it does is really challenges some of our assumptions about the evolution of things like complex behaviour, so making tools, burying the dead, things like this. And the papers that have come out a couple of months ago now, there's three that have been published together and they're presenting some really quite controversial new evidence from the site. The authors are claiming that naledi was intentionally burying their dead. That they're making tools and even one of these burials, the individual has a stone tool clasped in their hand and that they're also making art. So making engravings on the wall of the cave deep down in this really inaccessible place. And it's generated a lot of discussion. I mean, those suggestions that a species with such a small brain would be capable of things that we've assumed that you need a really big brain for, is quite controversial. But the study's also quite controversial because the level of evidence that's being presented to support these big claims is not as robust in the minds of many in the scientific community as perhaps it ought to be. And so this is also kind of frustrating, I think, in terms of the presentation of science, particularly in popular formats. And there's even a Netflix documentary that's just come out about this site and there's very big claims being made, but unfortunately not big evidence at this stage.

Chris - Well, we'll watch this space. Thanks for that Emma.


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