Discovery Of New Human Species Leads To Debate

First Posted: Apr 09, 2016 07:55 AM EDT

The discovery of an unknown human species from South Africa last year created a sensation that jolted the paleoanthropology community and captured public imagination. Furthermore, the core team who spearheaded the discovery claimed that the species followed a deliberate disposal system of its dead, a behavior considered exclusive to Homo sapiens. The viewpoint has recently been met with critique by an outside researcher.

A new species called Homo naledi, which was previously unknown, was discovered during excavations at the Rising Star Cave just outside of Johannesburg. The researchers contemplated that the location of the bodies inside indicated that the species had a system for disposing dead members. The conclusion was derived after observing the location of the Homo Naledi fossils, found in a chamber located around 10 meters under the ground. The cavers could reach it only after a steep climb through a pitch black tight passage covered with jagged rocks.

The remote location brought about the question of the fossils reaching this place in the first place.   Paul Dirks, a geologist with the James Cook University in Queensland, Australia analyzed the feature of the bones and the cave's geology to find plausible answers. The possibility of the fossils being brought into the chamber through flood or by animals was ruled out, due to the absence of fossil assemblages that contained a mix of animal species.

Dirks and his team of researchers concluded that the Homo Naledi followed a deliberate dead disposal system, by dragging the dead into the cave through the same arduous passage the scientists took. The implications of this activity meant that the extinct species, whose brain size was one third of Homo sapiens, understood the concept of mortality and might have followed a culture and tradition built around it.

The argument was met with resistance from the very beginning; however there was no definite case presentation against it. Now, a recent critique developed by Aurore Vale, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, argues that there is no strong proof that entire bodies were disposed off in the cave.  In the absence of the exact dating of the fossils' age, Dirks and the other collaborators can't be totally sure about the exact conditions of the chamber when the remains of the species reached here.  The cave's formation could have altered after the fossils reached it. Furthermore, not enough analysis of the remains has been done to indicate the absence of flooding or carnivore activity; hence an absolute conclusion cannot yet be derived.

The critique has been countered by the spearheading set of scientists, and the debate is open ended at the moment. For now, Dirk and his team are concentrating on dating the site. 

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