New Human-Like Species Homo Naledi Discovered

Fifteen partial skeletons of a new human-like species have been discovered in South Africa in what has been described as a "bridge" between humans and their primate ancestors.

Scientists made the discovery in what they called a burial chamber, locked away in the Rising Star cave system in an area of South Africa known as the "Cradle of Humankind," the BBC reported.

The discovery yielded fifteen skeletons, including both male and female subjects of a range of ages, from children to elderly people. In their study, published in the journal eLife on Thursday, the research team said it was the biggest single discovery of its type in Africa.

The new species has been named homo naledi. Modern humans belong to the homo genus, which is believed to be up to 2.5 million years old. Professor Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and leader of the study, believes homo naledi could be the first species of the genus and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago, possibly revealing details about the evolution of humans from primitive, bipedal primates to the ancestors of the modern species.

"I saw something I thought I would never see in my career," Berger told the BBC. "It was a moment that 25 years as a paleoanthropologist had not prepared me for."

The well-preserved state of the remains will enable the researchers to learn "everything about this species," Berger added. Homo naledi have hands which are a very similar shape to those of modern humans, while arches in the feet suggest the ancient species walked on two feet.

These human-like features contrast to the species's trunk, shoulder and pelvis, which are typical of the australopithecus genus, an ancient ancestor of hominids which lived between 5.3 million and 11,700 years ago.

The fact that the remains were found in what appears to be a chamber for the dead also suggests that the species were capable of ritual behavior—such as burial rituals—which had previously been associated with humans within the past 200,000 years.