On Homo naledi and its significance in evolutionary anthropology
For the past few years our team has been engaged with the discovery and analysis of an exceptional sample of fossil human relatives from the Rising Star cave system, South Africa. These fossils represent the newly discovered species Homo naledi. The fossils have a combination of humanlike traits in the hands, teeth, legs, and feet, but other features that resemble some of the earliest known human relatives, including a brain only a third the size of most people today. The Rising Star cave system preserves these fossil remains from the comparatively recent time of 236,000 to 335,000 years ago, at the same time that modern humans were beginning to diversify in the African continent. These discoveries have raised a number of new questions for the study of human origins: how is H. naledi related to living people? How could this species have coexisted with larger-brained human relatives? What tools did it make? And perhaps most intriguingly, did H. naledi care for its dead? This chapter engages with these questions. All of them push the boundaries of scientific knowledge today, and this chapter suggests that answering these questions will require new conceptual developments in the study of archaeology and palaeoanthropology.