South African researchers discover skull of child from over 250,000 years ago

Reconstructed child skull of H. naledi. Dark portions are inferred portions of the skull. (Image: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.)
Reconstructed child skull of H. naledi. Dark portions are inferred portions of the skull. /University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

A team of researchers from Witwatersrand and 13 other universities on Thursday announced the discovery of parts of the skull and teeth of a child that died almost 250,000 years ago when it was approximately four to six years old.

Research leader Lee Rogers Berger, director of the Center for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at Witwatersrand University, said the partial skull of Homo naledi was found at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg.

Homo naledi is a species of archaic human discovered in the Rising Star Cave dating to the Middle Pleistocene 335,000-236,000 years ago.

According to Berger, about 2,000 individual fragments of more than two dozen individuals at all life stages of Homo naledi have been recovered since the first discovery in 2013.

“The discovery of a single skull of a child, in such a remote location within the cave system adds mystery as to how these many remains came to be in these remote, dark spaces of the Rising Star Cave system. It is just another riddle among many that surround this fascinating extinct human relative,” he said.

“It is clearly a primitive species, existing at a time when previously we thought only modern humans were in Africa. Its very presence at that time and in this place complexifies our understanding of who did what first concerning the invention of complex stone tool cultures and even ritual practices,” Berger added.

The little child has been named Leti, meaning “the lost one” in seTswana, a Bantu language spoken in Southern Africa, because the skull was found alone and no remains of their body had been recovered.