eLife digest | Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa

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Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa

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Affiliation details

James Cook University, Australia; University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; University of Johannesburg, South Africa; University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States; Simon Fraser University, Canada; University of Colorado Denver, United States; Duke University, United States; Texas A&M University, United States; University of Zurich, Switzerland; American University, United States

Modern humans, or Homo sapiens, are now the only living species in their genus. But as recently as 20,000 years ago there were 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, Dirks et al. describe an unusual collection of hominin fossils that were found within the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The fossils all belong to a newly discovered hominin species called Homo naledi, which is described in a related study by Berger et al. The unearthed fossils are the largest collection of hominin fossils from a single species ever to be discovered in Africa, and include the remains of at least 15 individuals and multiple examples of most of the bones in the skeleton.

Dirks et al. explain that the assemblage from the Dinaledi Chamber is unusual because of the large number of fossils discovered so close together in a single chamber deep within the cave system. It is also unusual that no other large animal remains were found in the chamber, and that the bodies had not been damaged by scavengers or predators. The fossils were excavated from soft clay-rich sediments that had accumulated in the chamber over time; it also appears that the bodies were intact when they arrived in the chamber, and then started to decompose.

Dirks et al. discuss a number of explanations as to how the remains came to rest in the Dinaledi Chamber, which range from whether Homo naledi lived in the caves to whether they were brought in by predators. Most of the evidence obtained so far is largely consistent with these bodies being deliberately disposed of in this single location by the same extinct hominin species. However, a number of other explanations cannot be completely ruled out and further investigation is now needed to uncover the series of events that resulted in this unique collection of hominin fossils.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.09561.002