(p. A1) [A] . . . new hominin species was announced on Thursday, [September 10, 2015] by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.
In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world.
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The finding, like so many others in science, was the result of pure luck followed by considerable effort.
Two local cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, found the narrow entrance to the chamber, measuring no more than seven and a half inches wide. They were skinny enough to squeeze through, and in the light of their headlamps they saw the bones all around them. When they showed the fossil pictures to Pedro Boshoff, a caver who is also a geologist, he alerted Dr. Berger, who organized an investigation.
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(p. A3) Besides introducing a new member of the prehuman family, the discovery suggests that some early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber, a behavior previously considered limited to modern humans. Some of the scientists referred to the practice as a ritualized treatment of their dead, but by “ritual” they said they meant a deliberate and repeated practice, not necessarily a kind of religious rite.
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At the news conference in South Africa on Thursday, [September 10, 2015] announcing the findings, Dr. Berger said: “I do believe that the field of paleoanthropology had convinced itself, as much as 15 years ago, that we had found everything, that we were not going to make major discoveries and had this story of our origins figured out. I think many people quit exploring, thought it was safer to conduct science inside a lab or behind a computer.” What the new species Naledi says, Dr. Berger concluded, “is that there is no substitute for exploration.”
For the full story, see:
JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. “Cave Yields Addition to Human Family Tree.”The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 11, 2015): A1 & A3.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word and date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 10, 2015, and has the title “Homo Naledi, New Species in Human Lineage, Is Found in South African Cave,”)