SFU researchers publish findings on new species of ancient human fossils

Dr. Marina Elliott hypothesize location of fossils challenges previous knowledge of human behaviors

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Dr. Marina Elliot in excavating equipment
PHOTO: Wits University

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer

Humanity welcomes a new kid in town with the finding of a new species of ancient human fossils: a Homo naledi. The species was first discovered in 2013 and are estimated to have been alive around 335,000 – 236,000 years ago. In 2017, SFU anthropologist Dr. Marina Elliott led the underground excavation team that made the discovery of a child’s partial skull from South Africa. Elliot recently published her findings in PaleoAnthropology

“The bones are from a small child, around 4–6 years old. Bones of children rarely preserve in the fossil record, so this gives us some important information about growth and development in Homo naledi,” said Elliott in an interview with The Peak. “We recovered a few bones from other children in the original excavations, but this is the first time we have skull fragments and associated teeth from a single child, so that is also quite exciting.”

The skull was named “Leti,” short for Letimela, which Elliott explained is a word in Setswana meaning “the lost one.” She added, “I guess the team chose it because the bones were found in such a remote place that it would have been easy to miss them entirely.”

Elliott said the Rising Star Cave was in an area called The Cradle of Humankind, which has been famous for almost a century for its human fossil sites. In 2013, two recreational cavers recruited by Lee Berger found the first Homo naledi bones 200 metres underground in the Dinaledi Chamber. This trip was shortly followed by the first Rising Star cave expedition.

“Rising Star was a sport caver’s playground, but it wasn’t on anyone’s radar before 2013 as a likely location for fossils. And no one expected to find so many fossils so far into the cave,” said Elliott.

In the first Rising Star cave expedition in 2013, the team found over 1,500 fossil fragments and named the species. According to SFU News, Elliott, one of the six scientists who took part in the first expedition, “squeezed through an 18-cm-wide pinch point” to recover this large collection of fossils. 

The partial skull of a Homo naledi child was found in 2017, when Elliott led her own team beyond the original excavation site of the Dinaledi Chamber. 

Elliott said the location where these fossils were found — particularly the Homo naledi child’s skull — suggests they were placed there intentionally by a non-human species. 

“The location of this new material, in a very awkward location, may help us understand how and why all these bones are in the cave in the first place. At the moment, we believe Homo naledi individuals may have been deliberately taking their dead into these spaces and that is still the best explanation we have, given all the evidence.”

She noted other possible explanations such as sinkholes, scavengers, catastrophic natural disasters, or a group of lost Homo naledi “just don’t work with what we know of the geology, locations, and positions of the bones in the cave.” Although Elliott’s hypothesis suggests Homo naledi engaged in behaviors assumed to only be practiced by modern-day humans, she challenged this by bringing up other cases where similar assumptions have been proven incorrect.

“That might be hard for people to believe, but we used to think only humans made tools — until we discovered that other species do too,” said Elliott. “So it might not be a ‘humans do, other species don’t’ thing, as much as it might be that all kinds of different species engage in activities like tool-making, communication, treatment of the dead on a continuum, and humans are just on an extreme end of it.”

Elliott’s two research papers on the Rising Star Cave System recently published in PaleoAnthropology can be accessed on the website for free by anyone interested in learning more about this work.