Thinking about Naledi

by frankbeswick

The new discoveries in the Rising Star cave in South Africa arouse questions about human evolution.

It pays to be slim at times, and this showed when an all-female team of cavers was hired to investigate the depths of Rising Star Cave in South Africa, whose exceptionally narrow stretches were beyond the capacity of bigger folks. After an arduous, but brief passage they came upon a chamber where they found bones of an early kind of human. They seem to have been deliberately interred and further investigation has raised questions that challenge our understanding of human evolution. The name Naledi humans has been applied to them.

Image courtesy of Kovalenko Inna

Rising Star Cave

Humans came out of Africa, and it is in the South and the East of that continent that the earliest human fossils are found. Recently archaeologists decided to investigate Rising Star Cave. The cave had been explored already, but recently at the difficult far end of the cave a tunnel was found; and this has proved a profitable discovery.

The  cave is at the beginning spacious and easy of access, but it comes to a tunnel known as superman's crawl, which is but ten inches high. This is only a short passage, and it opens soon into the main chamber, a vast empty space that ends in a steep jagged incline known as the Dragon's Back. There follows a passage but eight inches wide which culminates in a steep drop through a narrow passage into the Dinaledi chamber, it was there that the fossils of early humans were discovered, fifteen in all.

The species is definitely hominid.The feet are those of an anatomically modern human and they are attached to long legs well suited for walking in a bipedal way. But the hands are curved rather like those of an ape, and they were suited to climbing trees. It appears that the environment to which they were adapted was a plain with occasional patches of tree cover.

The head was small, containing a brain the size of an orange, only about five hundred ccs. But while this is small for a human, only the size of a gorilla's, the behaviour of this kind of human seems to be surprisingly advanced, as I will show further down. Naledi humans stood about five feet tall and were gracile, slim and probably  lightly muscled, designed for speed rather than strength. This meant that they would have had to rely on observation of enemies, cunning and evasion rather than brute force, needs that foster the  development of intelligent and co-operative behaviour. 

Scientists are convinced that we are dealing here with a species of the genus Homo, to which we belong, rather than Pongo, the ape genus. The first question is whether this species is a new one or a variety of a known one. The earliest known species is homo habilis, but there are ten others known, including our own, which as far as we know is the only surviving species in the genus Homo, the hominids. The dating has not been decided yet, but scientists are talking two million years, which makes this an early form of human. But scientists are convinced that the species should be called Homo naledi. 


What is significant is that the dead were deliberately interred, and archaeologists had not expected this in a species of that stage of evolution and that period. How do we know that they were interred? There is no way that wild animals could have dragged the bones into the far depths of that inaccessible chamber, or if they had they would have been trapped and left their own bones there, but there were no animal bones present. Were the bones washed down by floods? There is no evidence of flooding at all. Nor was there any other access to the chamber that is now closed off. This led the archaeologists to infer that the bones were deliberately laid.This is interment, a form of ritual behaviour characteristic of humans. Furthermore, it is often, though not always associated with religion.

When we examine the skeletons we find a range of ages, extending from an old person down to a young child. The implications of this is that the community had a society in which some people attained old age, and this is only possible if the old are cherished and respected. Similarly the Naledi folk loved their children, and the absence of a large number of young children in the grave suggests that they were  caring for the children. All this points to a culture in which care for elderly and children was established as a rule. These people were therefore not brutish primitives. 

But something seems to have been overlooked by commentators. Consider that the people squeezed through narrow passages into the depths of a cave. They would have needed mastery of fire for light and the ability to create a means of controlling light, either by torches or containers as they passed through the cave. Moreover, the descent into the Dinaledi chamber would have needed some kind of rope. This might have been made of creepers, but twining them together would have made for extra strength, so we are looking at a tool making creature. Someone would have needed to anchor the rope for a person to arrange the body in the chamber, so we are looking at a form of co-operative social organization, a characteristic of human behaviour.

But discussions have so far overlooked something significant, the Dinaledi chamber resembles a womb, an empty space at the end of a narrow passage. It may be the case that the Naledi folk saw death as a return to the womb, and this implies that they worshiped a female deity, a great mother goddess to whose womb they returned at death. The up-side of this is that belief in death as a return to the womb means that death is conceptualized and understood. It is not a mere blanking out; and along with belief that death is a return to the mother goddess' womb often goes a belief in reincarnation. In Naledi cave I suspect that we are looking at the earliest religious beliefs of humankind. 

Of course, we can never be certain of any of our views of the past, the best that we can ever have is belief derived from the practice of inference, the process of trying to make sense of data. This involves making hypotheses and seeing how they fit into the general pattern. I believe that the inference that with Naledi folk we are looking at an early form of religion is a credible one. 

The Significance of Brain Size

What also challenges scientific orthodoxy is that Naledi humans had a brain that was relatively small. Brains that size equate them with gorillas, bright enough, but not human level. But here we have a hominid species with a small brain, but activity over and above what you would expect from a brain of that size. Orthodoxy is challenged by this. This same issue has also turned up with Homo floresiensis, Flores man, the "hobbit" species, a form of pygmy human that dwelt on the island of Flores in the Philippines until not so long ago. These were diminutive, with brains to match, but were clearly human. The conclusion must be that there is more to intelligence than brain size.

What may be significant is brain-body ratio. The gorilla has a small brain governing a large body. Naledi folk had a small brain governing a small one. This might mean that intelligence is linked to the amount of surplus capacity over and above what is needed for motor functions, and here the Naledi folk may have had advantages. What also matters may be quality of brain. If we think of the large computers of the 1950s we realize that their computing capacity was less than a modern laptop. Size counts for less than quality. 

The intelligence of Naledi humans was possibly linked to their diminutive stature. They were too small to challenge large predators or hunt large beasts. They would have lived by foraging plants and eggs, which they took from nests in the trees that they climbed and in which they probably took refuge when under attack from a predator. It was necessary  for them to develop social organization, for no individual could rely on size alone and be a rugged individualist. They probably had to work as a team. It is this social sense that would also have given rise to their religious feelings. 

There is much yet to know about the Naledi folk, and little evidence available. We can take them up into our collective human consciousness. We know not whether they were our ancestors, but they were much like us and had the qualities that we find in successful human species. 

Updated: 12/26/2016, frankbeswick
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MBC on 06/14/2018

Very interesting article.

frankbeswick on 04/18/2018

There is a new suggestion about how stone age people found their way in the dark. The theory is that they spoke click languages akin to those spoken by the San of Tanzania and the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Along with this comes the suggestion that their quiet environment gave them hearing more sensitive than we have in our noisy environments. The result is that they might have developed echo-locating skills akin to those that bats have, making mental maps of the dark caves by clicking and listening to their echoes.

frankbeswick on 10/18/2017

The first dating was around two million years because of archaic features to the skull, but later dating gave us a date between 336000 and 235000 years ago, which suggests that these were a late offshoot of the hominid line.

Veronica on 10/18/2017

Have we a circa date for Homo Naladi at Rising Star cave ?

I am doing a Stone Age workshop to 3 classes of 8 year olds on Friday ( 90 children ) and I will add some of this information .

Thank you.

alok kumar on 10/18/2017



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dasa on 10/16/2017

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happy wheels on 10/13/2017

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DaIndiaShop on 10/13/2017

Keep it up. I really appreciate your writing skills.

frankbeswick on 08/14/2017

Write about what you know and love. Ensure that when you write you write with such enthusiasm that you are concerned with every word. This means that you assiduously check your work and replace words and phrases when necessary.

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