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The Real-Life Bone Collector: Recovering an Extinct Human Ancestor

Watch the real-life “bone collector” in action. Biological anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Marina Elliott ventured a hundred feet deep into an ancient cave, at times squeezing through passages only eight inches wide, to recover the remains of what turned out to be a newly discovered, extinct human ancestor.

Marina Elliott navigates through a narrow passage to retrieve fossils deep in Rising Star cave.
Marina Elliott squeezes through a narrow passage to retrieve fossils deep in Rising Star Cave.

Working with expedition leader and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger, Elliott led an excavation team into Rising Star Cave, where cavers had previously come across unidentified bones. Elliott expected a relatively quick job of retrieving fossils belonging to a single individual but “when I first started looking into that space, my headlamp was picking up flashes of bone just here and there and everywhere,” she recalls. “We recovered around 1,500 fragments from that first expedition, in an area smaller than a child’s sandbox.” Upon examination, the scientists determined that the fossils belong to the human genus—but not to a species already known to science.

The discovery of our new but extinct family member Homo naledi—named after Rising Star Cave, as naledi means “star” in a local South African language—is turning our understanding of our past on its head just a bit. Homo naledi appears to be one of the most primitive known species in the human genus, with a small brain and ape-like features. But H. naledi also has some more humanlike features that distinguish it from any other known early human ancestors. It has curved fingers good for climbing, feet and legs suited for long-distance walking, and H. naledi may have even engaged in ritualized behavior.

“There’s a lot of books about human origins and human evolution. For a long time, I think we thought we sort of wrapped it up. What Homo naledi has done is kind of forced a whole scale rethink of that. The family tree that we always think about, and have been adding little twigs and branches to along the way, actually may be a lot bushier than we ever really realized. In fact, that whole tree analogy may not be a good analogy at all. A lot of these branches actually rejoined each other and became something else. The relationships of past species and past populations is a lot more complicated than we had originally assumed.

“We have 15 individuals, ranging in age from neonates to older adults. The whole assemblage is something that we didn’t think we’d ever get in paleoanthropology. We’re used to dealing with very small scraps of material. What this is doing is a real wake up call to the discipline,” says Elliott.

Marina Elliott and other members of the expedition team inside Rising Star cave.
Marina Elliott and other members of the expedition team inside Rising Star Cave.

But how did so many of our ancestors end up in the underground labyrinth? “Really, there’s no other explanation than they were deliberately deposited there. Whether they were dragged all the way in or whether they were sort of tumbled in is another question,” Elliott says, musing on the possibility of ritualized behavior. It’s actually a lack of evidence that leads scientists to believe our ancestors were purposely placed in Rising Star. “We have no buck, or deer, no ungulates in there, not a baboon bone, not a porcupine, none of these species that often frequent caves in the first place, are in there. We have no signs of carnivore activity on the bones. Even if there had been an opening from above, such as a sink hole, there are very few sink holes that selectively kill only one species.” Elliott explains.

While Homo naledi may be the discovery of a lifetime—or perhaps, many lifetimes—Rising Star may hold yet more clues to our ancient past. “The space that we excavated is only maybe a tenth of the surface of that chamber floor,” says Elliott.  “There’s a lot more material to recover. It’s going to be decades of work.” Elliott is leading those ongoing excavations.

Marina Elliott delicately excavates a fragile skull found inside Rising Star cave.
Marina Elliott delicately excavates a fragile skull found inside Rising Star Cave.

Marina Elliott is a grantee of National Geographic’s Expeditions Council. To learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society, visit natgeo.org/grants.

VIDEO CREDITS:
VIDEO PRODUCER/EDITOR: Nora Rappaport
SERIES PRODUCER: Chris Mattle
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Elaina Kimes

Comments

  1. marc verhaegen
    https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/AAT
    April 2, 8:01 am

    Yes, fantastic excavation, thanks a lot, but unfortunately a biased description (anthropocentric). Not Homo IMO: there’s nothing uniquely-human in naledi: small ape-sized brain, primitive feet (fetal chimps also have more humanlike feet which near birth become hand-like) & primitive hands (also seen in monkeys, not elongated as in most apes), curved hand-bones (for climbing vertically, not for tool-making more than what we see in chimps). Naledi fossilised in mud-stone = stagnant water at the time. The flat plantigrade feet are the opposite of running-feet (cf high ostrich foot vs flat flamingo, grebe or penguin foot). Apparently, naledi lived in swamp forests or wetlands, perhaps most like extant bonobos & lowland gorillas still do, but naledi spent a lot more time in the swamps, e.g. wading bipedally & climbing vertically, google e.g. “bonobo wading” illustrations. Certainly no deliberate burial as prof.Berger believes. Most likely, naledi was a gracile australopith: Australopithecus naledi.

  2. Donna Burns
    March 9, 8:57 pm

    Wow! This is the best! A wonderful discovery and I want to know more

  3. Maxwell Bova
    3rd rock from the sun
    February 17, 4:03 pm

    I can only assume the hemorrhoid garglers over at ISIS would like to see this whole thing go away.

    Women as important members of a scientific team. An expedition that shows our ancient roots.

    Well “dumb coughs,” the truth is out there (or in this case down there) and you and your ilk are on the run from the actual universe, versus your crazy ideas about it.

    Even when your type get ahead for a time, you’re beaten back by your own insecurity, misogyny, homophobia, and stupidity.

    I say: Hear, hear to these amazing women.

    I thank too Mr. Lee Berger for being on The Naked Scientist back on the November 6th, 2016 episode so I could keep and eye on this amazing find.