The discovery of burial practices and symbolic behavior in the extinct human species Homo naledi challenges our understanding of human evolution. These findings, published in the journal eLife, reveal that Homo naledi intentionally buried their dead and created intricate symbols on cave walls, pushing back the timeline for these complex behaviors by at least 100,000 years before our own Homo sapiens ancestors. The existence of such practices in a species with brains one-third the size of modern humans suggests that symbolic behaviors were not unique to our lineage, raising intriguing questions about the origins and development of these cultural practices.
In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers have shattered previous assumptions about human evolution by uncovering evidence that an extinct human species engaged in burial practices and created symbols on cave walls long before our own ancestors. The species in question, known as Homo naledi, possessed brains that were only one-third the size of modern humans, as reported by CNN.
Until now, these complex behaviors had only been attributed to larger-brained species such as Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. However, new findings detailed in three studies accepted for publication in the journal eLife, as reported by CNN, suggest that Homo naledi intentionally buried their dead, utilized symbols, and engaged in activities associated with assigning meaning to their existence.
Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, the lead author of two of the studies and a co-author of the third, as well as National Geographic Explorer in Residence, stated, “These recent findings suggest intentional burials, the use of symbols, and meaning-making activities by Homo naledi. They indicate that this small-brained species of ancient human relatives were performing complex practices related to death.” This challenges the notion that humans alone possess the ability to develop symbolic practices and even suggests that we might not have been the originators of such behaviors.
The initial discovery of Homo naledi fossils took place in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system in 2013, and since then, Berger and his team have continued their exploration of these caves. The team unearthed the remains of Homo naledi adults and children who were laid to rest in the fetal position and covered with soil. These burials predate any known Homo sapiens burials by at least 100,000 years.
Berger explained that Homo naledi walked upright, manipulated objects with their hands like humans, but differed in their physical characteristics, being shorter, thinner, and having smaller heads. CNN reports that the researchers also found symbols etched into the cave walls, resembling hashtags and other geometric shapes. The exact meaning of these symbols and whether the species used them for communication remain uncertain.
The estimated age of the cave art ranges between 241,000 and 335,000 years old. Agustín Fuentes, a National Geographic Explorer and lead author of the third study, shared his thoughts with CNN, stating, “What we can say is that these are intentionally made geometric designs that had meaning for naledi. That means they spent a lot of time and effort and risked their lives to engrave these things in these places where they’re burying bodies.” Fuentes emphasized that this discovery challenges our understanding of the trajectory of human evolution.
He added, “The challenge here, then, is that we now know that Homo naledi, in addition to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals and Denisovans and a few others, were engaging in the kind of behavior that we, even just a few decades ago, thought was unique to us.” The revelation expands our knowledge of the diversity and complexity of human evolutionary practices and raises further questions about the origin and development of symbolic behavior.