There are certain things that seem to be special about humans. We talk, we laugh, we mourn, and we bury our dead. But our new human ancestor, Homo nadeli, whose discovery in a South African cave has posed many fascinating questions, is suggesting that the human species’ unique relationship with death began much earlier than we thought.
The revelation that Homo nadeli may have intentionally used the hard-to-reach cave as a tomb is remarkable because scientists believe that Homo nadeli as a species — not necessarily these bones in particular — is much, much older than we are, according to Lee Berger, research professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who spoke to Agence France-Press about the discovery.
“We have just met a new species of human relative that deliberately disposed of its dead. Until this moment in history we thought the idea of ritualized behaviours directed towards the dead… was actually unique to Homo sapiens. We saw ourselves as different. We have now seen, we believe, a species that had that same capability — and it is an extraordinary thing.”
First, some background details about this new human ancestor. The remains of 15 members of this new species were found in the Rising Star cave system near Johannesburg after a 21-day expedition in 2013 that required 60 people to undertake.
Homo nadeli stood barely five feet tall. He was bipedal, but he had ape-like fingers and shoulders, New Scientist added. He had a gorilla-sized brain about a third the size of a modern human’s, making him a pretty primitive species. These remains may be members of the same tribe or family; infants, adults, males, and females were all present.
Berger told Slate that Homo nadeli appears to come from “relatively deep time, as it has many, many primitive characteristics. Our analysis tells it must come from somewhere at the base of the genus Homo.”
That pins the new human ancestor at possibly two million-years-old as a species.
The possibility that a human being that primitive was disposing of their dead means humankind as a family tree began to think about and understand death much earlier than we thought. However, scientists are being careful not to take this interpretation too far. They’re not calling the activity burial because that suggests Homo nadeli had some kind of ritual or ceremony. It may be more appropriate to call the cave system a tomb. What’s certain is it’s rare to find so many ancient bones in one place.
Researchers believe the bodies were added one by one on purpose. Other explanations for why this group of Homo nadeli were there have been tossed out: the hiding place of scavengers, a trap, or a natural disaster, said paleontologist John Hawks. Berger, who also spoke to Slate, stresses just how significant the tomb explanation is.
“You’re faced with a remarkable situation of a small-brained primitive hominid that is almost certainly deliberately disposing of its dead in a sort of repeated ritualized fashion, in an underground chamber. That alone is remarkable. The fact is, it almost certainly would have been risky to get to this chamber. So they are not only secreting these bodies away to an area where nothing could get to them, they were taking risks in doing that. Only humans do that. Until this moment, we’ve never seen another form doing that, and we’d have never thought of something small-brained and primitive doing that.”
If Homo nadeli disposed of its dead in such a way, this opens the discovery to the realm of religion and spirituality, because it raises questions about the relationship between humankind and a concept of a creator or an afterlife, whatever form that belief took for Homo nadeli.
Reverend Mark Woods had an interesting article on the topic for Christianity Today. He pressed his belief that the discovery of a new ancient human ancestor like Homo nadeli isn’t at odds with Christian faith (literal interpretations of the Bible suggest the Earth is only a few thousand years old) but suggests “we need to expand our definition of what it is to be human. And instead of seeing them as a problem to be solved or ignored, they are another testimony to the overflowing creativity of God, who gives life to all creatures and gives human beings, of whatever kind, eternal significance.”
Of course, plenty of questions about Homo nadeli’s potential spiritual beliefs can never be answered — whether they believed in some form of Heaven or experienced grief. Rev. Woods believes that at the very least, Homo nadeli understood in a basic sense that death wasn’t the end of life.
“Humans and humanoids seem, from the very beginnings of their self-awareness as autonomous individuals, to have a sense of what we might call the soul. We can be sure that it would bear very little relation to anything Christian theology teaches us to believe. But it still shows they knew that death was not an absolute ending, and that those who had died were still, in some way, present.”
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