Homo Naledi find exciting on many levels

Written by Marius Strydom

Thursday, 10 September 2015 started as any other for me, SA and the World, but it was not long before we were introduced to a new lady, Homo Naledi, and she changed everything. She lit up the twitterverse, she dominated Google searches, she got people all over the world talking and she and the team that found her filled me and so many other South Africans with great pride and wonder. For the next few days, the leading story in SA was a good news one, dwarfing talks of loadshedding, Nkandla, crime and corruption. She is an inspiration to South Africans that value science, high standards of education and believe that SA is destined to make a huge contribution to the world. Thank you Homo Naledi.

By mid-morning on 10 September, social media was hotting up – something was about to happen. Cameras, pens and keyboards were focused on a group of scientists at the Maropeng Visitor Center in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, waiting for the big announcement.

And then it came.

After an introduction by Cyril Ramaphosa, Professor Lee Berger from Wits took the stage and shared his amazing discoveries with the world. He and his team discovered a new hominid ancestor to Homo Sapiens and her name is Homo Naledi. What makes this find so amazing is that the team discovered bones belonging to at least 15 individuals, which is almost unheard of as far as hominid discoveries go. Furthermore, within the Rising Star Cave system in the Cradle of Humankind, there lays many more bones still to be excavated.

The fact that so many bones are located within a small area and that there are no teeth marks on the bones has brought the scientists to a fascinating hypothesis – Homo Naledi disposed of its dead in an organised and ritualised fashion. Despite having a brain only one third the size of modern humans, this hominid may have exhibited behaviour that is uniquely human, giving us a glance into how early in our evolution we started developing these characteristics.

The age of Homo Naledi is yet to be determined, but regardless of whether it is more than 3 million years old or a few hundred thousand years, it will change the way we look at our ancestor record. Because the bones were not found in sedimentary layers, it was not possible to date it based on the age of the sediment. Instead, the bones themselves will have to be carbon dated, which is a process that will start soon (this will lead to the destruction of some bones). Homo Naledi is theorised to be either 1) a replacement for Australopithicus Afarensis (Lucy), which would make it more than 3 million years old; 2) an interim step between Austrolopithecines and Homo (2 – 3 million years old and most likely); and 3) a recent cousin (less than 1 million years old) that shared the African landscape with our ancestors.

The discovery is not just exciting because it has meaningfully enriched our understanding of our ancestry and added substantially to the fossil record, it is exciting because it casts a positive light on the scientific community in SA and what can be achieved. It could and should inspire numerous students to enter the field and may be the catalyst we need to encourage increased scientific study and higher educational standards in our country.

Lee Berger, although a native of Kansas and Georgia, has spent over half of his life in SA making a huge contribution to the science of palaeoanthropology in our country. His team of 60 people includes scientists from all over the world, but the majority are from SA and include people from all walks of life. I am hopeful that the Homo Naledi discovery could attract many SA students into the fields of palaeoanthropology, paleontology, archaeology and evolutionary studies. There is great potential to even further build on SA’s reputation as a centre for excellence in these fields.

Even more importantly, I hope that the Homo Naledi discovery will excite school kids all over the country and create an interest in science. Hopefully it will help more children to pursue maths and science as subjects and lead to an improvement in marks (which are weak compared to the rest of the world). Hopefully this discovery can even inspire the Department of Education to increase focus on these subjects and lift education standards in general. The discovery of Homo Naledi illustrates that we do not have to take a back seat when it comes to scientific discovery, but also that we have to invest aggressively in our education.

So thank you Homo Naledi for exciting me about our shared history and about my country. Thank you for spreading a good news story about SA worldwide instead of the negatives ones we so often have to face. Thank you for putting science on the front page and hopefully inspiring South African students of all walks of life to pursue scientific studies further. And thank you Homo Naledi for again highlighting that we all come from the same stock, we all come from Africa. We live where mankind originated. We are Homo Sapiens. We are Africans.

Are you excited by the discovery of Homo Naledi? Do you think it will inspire a new generation of scientists? Do you think it can be used to lift our maths and science marks? Are you a proud South African? I would love to hear your feedback.


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