The Fossils That Could Change Human History

Video highlights from Dawn of Humanity

National Geographic explores Homo naledi, the newly-discovered human ancestor that’s baffling scientists

Deep in a South African cave, an astounding discovery has revealed stunning new clues to what made us human.

Located in an almost inaccessible chamber deep in a South African cave, the site required recruiting a special team of experts slender enough to wriggle down a vertical, pitch-dark, seven-inch-wide passage.

Most fossil discoveries of human relatives consist of just a handful of bones. But down in this hidden chamber, the team uncovered an unprecedented trove – so far, over 1,500 bones –with the potential to rewrite the story of our origins.

Besides shedding light on the origins of our genus, the new species, named Homo naledi, seems to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour we previously thought was limited to humans.

“Overall, Homo naledi looks like one of the most primitive members of our genus, but it also has some surprisingly human-like features, enough to warrant placing it in the genus Homo,” said John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was a senior author on the paper describing the new species.

“H. naledi had a tiny brain, about the size of an average orange (about 500 cubic centimeters), perched atop a very slender body.”

To date, the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals of the same species, a small fraction of the fossils believed to remain in the chamber.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, H. naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” said Lee Berger, a research professor at University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who led the two expeditions.

These fossils may help fill in a crucial gap in the fossil record and tell us how Homo, the first member of the human family, emerged from ape-like ancestors like the famous Lucy.

But how did hundreds of bones end up in the remote chamber? The experts are considering every mind-boggling possibility.

Join a treacherous descent into this cave of spectacular and enigmatic finds, and discover their startling implications for the saga of what made us human.

Dawn Of Humanity premieres tonight at 8.30pm AEST on National Geographic Channel

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