eLife digest | Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa

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Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa

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University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States; Texas A&M University, United States; Duke University, United States; University of Zurich, Switzerland; University of Arkansas, United States; University of Kent, United Kingdom; Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany; Mercyhurst University, United States; New York University, United States; New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, United States; Dartmouth College, United States; University of Colorado Denver, United States; Loughborough University, United Kingdom; Tulane University, United States; Lehman College, United States; American Museum of Natural History, United States; University of Cape Town, South Africa; Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Spain; Modesto Junior College, United States; Louisiana State University, United States; Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan; University of Missouri, United States; University of Kentucky College of Medicine, United States; Simon Fraser University, Canada; Université de Montréal, Canada; Australian National University, Australia; Biology Department, Universidad Autònoma de Madrid, Spain; Midwestern University, United States; Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom; University of Pisa, Italy; Chaffey College, United States; University of Johannesburg, South Africa; George Washington University, United States; University of Colorado School of Medicine, United States; Croatian Natural History Museum, Croatia; University of Iowa, United States; Lincoln Memorial University, United States; Smithsonian Institution, United States; Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, China

Modern humans, or Homo sapiens, are now the only living species in their genus. But as recently as 100,000 years ago, there were several other species that belonged to the genus Homo. Together with modern humans, these extinct human species, our immediate ancestors and their close relatives, are collectively referred to as ‘hominins’.

Now Berger et al. report the recent discovery of an extinct species from the genus Homo that was unearthed from deep underground in what has been named the Dinaledi Chamber, in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The species was named Homo naledi; ‘naledi’ means ‘star’ in Sotho (also called Sesotho), which is one of the languages spoken in South Africa.

The unearthed fossils were from at least 15 individuals and include multiple examples of most of the bones in the skeleton. Based on this wide range of specimens from a single site, Berger et al. describe Homo naledi as being similar in size and weight to a small modern human, with human-like hands and feet. Furthermore, while the skull had several unique features, it had a small braincase that was most similar in size to other early hominin species that lived between four million and two million years ago. Homo naledi's ribcage, shoulders and pelvis also more closely resembled those of earlier hominin species than those of modern humans.

The Homo naledi fossils are the largest collection of a single species of hominin that has been discovered in Africa so far and, in a related study, Dirks et al. describe the setting and context for these fossils. However, since the age of the fossils remains unclear, one of the next challenges will be to date the remains to provide more information about the early evolution of humans and their close relatives.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.09560.002