Cape Times

Heyta da Naledi

- Angelique Serrao and Vuyo Mkize

AS THE world celebrated the greatest scientific find in the search for human origins yesterday, a professor hinted that “the best is yet to come”.

Legendary palaeontol­ogist Lee Berger and a team of 60 global scientists intimated that they have found something else in the fossil treasure trove of the Cradle of Humankind.

Yesterday, the global spotlight fell on South Africa as the scientists unveiled a new species of human relative who remarkably buried their dead.

The announceme­nt, at the Maropeng visitor centre in Krugersdor­p, was that in a remote cave chamber named Dinaledi (The Stars), the biggest amount of fossil hominins in Africa yet had been found. The new species, called Homo

Naledi (Star), sits at the start of the human genus and will probably reveal more about the beginnings of our evolutiona­ry journey.

Primitive in many ways and remarkably human in others, they were small, thin animals who walked on two long legs, with human-like size seven feet and apelike rounded shoulders. They wereabout 1.5 metres tall. Remarkably, their brain was the size of an orange.

Their hands were human-like until the palms, their fingers curved to such an extent that their shape has never been seen before.

It is believed that they used their fingers to climb, but it was a kind of climbing movement that we have no experience of.

Scientists found 1 550 separate bones and bone fragments belonging to at least 15 separate individual­s aged from infants to the elderly.

It is the first time in our history that we have encountere­d a separate species from us who buried their dead. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was beaming with pride, saying that “today we will be rewriting history. Today, we learn something new”.

Ramaphosa said Homo Naledi would capture the imaginatio­n of people around the globe and that the fossils would inspire poets and writers to relook the African story. “When Maropeng opened 10 years ago, we said it would be a place of pilgrimage, a place where our collective umbilical cord was buried,” he said, adding that the government had no idea at the time that a discovery of this nature would be made.

“We now know that the Cradle will now yield more research for years to come,” he said. The find, and that of Australop

ithecus Sediba in 2008, has inspired the scientific world.

Also thrilled about the discovery was Terry Garcia, the National Geographic Society’s chief science and exploratio­n officer.

“For decades, we have sent adventurou­s men out to map the world and almost every dot has been filled, and even until this day, when it seems as if science has answered all the questions, there are still mysteries and wonders we haven’t seen.

“This is an example. I believe the 21st century is the great age of exploratio­n.”

There is nobody who believes this more than Berger, who said his team found Naledi in a cave system that is one of the most researched in the world.

“I had many sleepless nights thinking how I had spent 17 to 20 years roving the area searching for fossils. And I missed this,” he said.

He said palaeontol­ogists believed 15 years ago that there were no new discoverie­s to be made. Scientists, he said, believed it was safest to conduct science in a lab.

“This site has been dug continuous­ly since 1948. It is the most well-known fossil site on the continent and we missed this.

“This shows us there is no substitute for exploratio­n.”

He had stopped exploring for five years when his son found Sediba.

“Now we are continuous­ly exploring. Will we make more discoverie­s? We already have.”

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