An exhibit of the largest collection of fossils of close human relatives ever to go on public display has opened in South Africa.
The fossils were discovered in caves near the Sterkfontein and Swartkrans dig sites – about 40 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg – two years ago.
Initially believed to be about 2.5 million years old, subsequent dating showed Homo naledi roamed the African bush between 236 thousand and 335 thousand years ago – around the time modern humans were emerging.
Project leader, Professor Lee Berger stated: “There’s almost a thousand bones of Homo naledi from the ‘dinaledi‘ chamber that was the original chamber we described in 2015. Also behind that, the ‘lesedi‘ chamber and that chamber has ‘neo‘ in it, one of the most complete skeletons ever discovered but also the most complete skeleton of Homo naledi.”
The exhibit coincides with the publication of a controversial paper that questions the widely-held view that humanity’s evolutionary roots lie in Africa.
Recently, scientists discovered fossils in Greece and Bulgaria of an ape-like creature that they say lived 7.2 million years ago.
Their conclusions are drawn from a lower jawbone and an isolated tooth.
However, Professor Lee Berger – who led the South African discoveries two years ago – says these assertions can’t be based on such limited evidence.
“You shouldn’t be taking single areas of anatomy, in particular even, single characters, on single areas of anatomy, of specimens like that and making such grand proclamations,” Berger said.
“It’s not enough evidence […] Discoveries like Homo naledi and these fossils behind me, have taught us that we shouldn’t use single areas of anatomy. If we’d done that same type of study with Homo naledi‘s jaw, we’d have got it wrong – we needed the skeleton.
“It’s still safe to say, that humanity owes its origins to this continent.”
“Almost Human” is open to the public until the end of November. Visitors are only allowed to spend 10 minutes with the rare fossils.