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Human fossil found in south Africa

By Daniels Fields
On October 5, 2015

Researchers recently published their findings on the fossilized remains of a new species of human, Homo nadelis. The fossil was first discovered in October of 2013 in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa.    

According to an article published in eLife, almost 1,550 bones and teeth from multiple individuals have been unearthed from the site, where excavation is not yet complete. 

Jessica Westin, Kirkwood Community College biology professor, said finds like this are unusual. She stated that researchers often only have a few bones to go off of from any given site. Because of this, Westin said, this discovery will yield a larger glimpse into our evolutionary heritage than most. Westin added that the remains reveal the specimen’s unique anatomical characteristics. She said nadelis exhibits modern, human-like hands and feet, but a small brain case and a cone-shaped rib cage, archaic features indicative of earlier humans. 

According to Westin, it is difficult to pin down a date for this particular site. Estimates range from a couple hundred thousand to three million years old. DNA analysis could shed new light on this, but only if the remains are a few hundred thousand years old, Westin added. 

She also stated that the species is most likely an off-shoot of the branch that gave rise to modern humans. If the species turns out to be on the younger end of the proposed age range, nadelis would have   coexisted with archaic members of our own species, according to Westin. She stated this is just further evidence for how variable the history is of our genus Homo. Furthermore we should not be surprised by this, Westin added.

If nadelis is on the older end, Westin said that the species potentially exhibits some behavioral traits that researchers don’t have evidence of until much later. 

The researchers’ findings, published in eLife, conclude that the site was a place for deliberate disposal of the dead. Westin added that this does not, in and of itself, indicate religious or ceremonial behavior. However, it would nonetheless be a surprising discovery, if the species turns out to be older Westin said. 

Westin added that nadelis’ hands have potential behavior implications as well, regarding the fine motor skills necessary for tool-making. Westin added that chimpanzees have been observed making tools, and that this ability should not surprise us. 

The discovery has since spawned significant news coverage across a variety of media outlets. 

According to Westin, the researchers decided to publish in eLife, an open access journal, which has made the discovery more accessible to the public.

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