It seems as though every time a hominin fossil is discovered, sensational headlines follow. Major news sources claim that a discovery is unprecedented, or that some new fossil rewrites everything we know about human origins. So is this excitement warranted? Should we be making such a big deal over the fossils? In the case of the Homo naledi fossils, I say yes. Though the exact content of the headline is often misleading, I think there is something to the excitement over the discoveries. This might be because I am a very enthusiastic, excitable person–but I tend to believe that new fossils should be celebrated in big ways! But why, you ask, should we make such a big fuss over the newly discovered Homo naledi fossils? Well, I came up with a list of reasons.
But first, let’s briefly go over these fossils’ highlights, what do we have here?
- 1,550 fossils that represent at least 15 different individuals.
- A note on the name: the fossils were named after the cave where they were found. Naledi means `star’ in the local South African language, Sesotho.
- The fossils show a mixture of primitive characteristics with modern, more Homo like characteristics. Primitive characteristics include a small brain size, curved fingers, and a shoulder built for climbing in the trees. The more derived characters include a modern looking foot, long legs, and small teeth (for more details, check out Roberto Sáez‘s post here).
And now, the important question, why are these fossils so friggen cool?!
- They found a TON. The team has reported over 1550 specimens so far, representing at least 15 individuals. In paleoanthropology, fossils are generally rare. Sometimes scientists end up with only bits of a finger bone. This discovery is a totally different story, a complete treasure trove of information. Multiple individuals at the same site can tell paleoanthropologists a ton about the population they’re looking at. Also, it helps that these 15 individuals died at different ages, so scientists can learn about growth and development.
- The fossils are in great condition. Here’s the freaky part: the fossils are relatively unharmed. They don’t appear to have been chewed on by large carnivores or washed around and broken by various water sources. This leads to interesting questions about how the fossils got there (the researchers are suggesting a possible burial, which is insanely interesting but is being met with skepticism).
- This excavation was not a walk in the park. The fossils were buried deep in a cave system that required climbing steep, jagged rockfalls and squeezing into small spaces. The tightest spot was a crack the scientists had to squeeze through which measured less than 8 inches wide. Here’s a video about the caves, and more about the 6 women who excavated the fossils (they’re being called underground astronauts)!
- The study is open access. Huge round of applause for the scientists who worked on this project, because not only have they uncovered interesting fossils, but they’ve published their work in the open-access journal eLife, which makes their work accessible to everyone. They have also published images of the major specimens online.
In my opinion, the combination of these factors are part of what makes this announcement so headline worthy. Also, these points are interesting in part because they highlight different parts of the scientific process. Incredible fossil discoveries benefit from solid resources, great teams of people, and transparent, openly accessible results and hypotheses.
I would, however, like to make one HUGE point. Though I agree that this find is groundbreaking and extremely exciting, I stress that the findings at this point are very much hypotheses. This is the scientific process, folks. A group of paleoanthropologists have put forward their ideas based on the evidence, and now it’s up to the rest of the scientific community to examine that evidence and see if they agree. Let’s keep this in mind as we move forward, there’s a lot still to be learned about these fossils. The biggest question remains: how old are they?
I think paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood said it best when he cautiously stated: “These folks do not have an age, yet they have some remarkable fossils, and the context of them is also remarkable.” He emphasized that “It’s not only remarkable, it’s also rather weird. But nonetheless, the fossils are important. So the community is, I think, struggling to work out what it all means.”