South African paleontologists have made a major discovery at the Cradle of Humans site near Johannesburg, uncovering the world’s oldest known burial grounds. The find offers new insights into human evolution as the remains encountered in the burial site belong to hominids that were previously believed to lack the cognitive ability to perform complex activities such as burial rituals. The researchers, led by renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, discovered a hominid that had the capacity to climb trees, buried 100 feet underground within the Human Cradle UNESCO heritage site. Berger had previously made headlines in 2013 after finding the first ever Homo naledi specimens. The latest find, which dates back to at least 200,000 BC, raises questions about current assumptions regarding human evolution, which have long held that the development of larger brains empowered humans to perform advanced cognitive activities.
The discovery is potentially groundbreaking, as previous evidence of human burials dated back only 100,000 years, and were attributed to Homo sapiens. Homo naledi, on the other hand, is a much older species, and the possibility of this species having engaged in complex emotional and cognitive behavior suggests that such activity is not limited only to Homo sapiens with large brains. The burial site is believed to have contained at least five individuals, and the pit in which it was located may have been intentionally dug and used to bury the bodies. Berger is quoted as saying Homo naledi reveals that “we are not that special”.
The oval burial site discovered in South Africa was located in the ‘Rising Star’ cave system where initial bones were discovered during excavations in 2013. The species was named after the cave. Berger has since been recognized by National Geographic for his contributions to the study of evolution, featuring in TV programs and documentaries. However, some outside scientists have challenged the hypothesis, stating that there is presently insufficient evidence to challenge existing theories of human evolution.