Human Ancestors In The ‘Chamber Of Stars’: Did H. Naledi Perform Burial-Like Rituals?

The discovery of a new species in the human family tree was announced Thursday, but where do they fit in, and did they really perform burial-like rituals?

John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said that H. naledi had a tiny brain that was about the size of an orange and a very small, slender body. An adult H. naledi stood about 5 feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds. H. naledi‘s hand appears as though the primitive human-like species would have been capable of using tools, but also capable of skillful climbing. The details of the H. naledi discovery were published in eLife.

Of course, the physiology of this human-like species is not the most remarkable thing about H. naledi for some people. Many people are talking about where the remains were found and the implications of the location. Because the fossils were found in a room buried deep underground – a room that the researchers coined the “Dinaledi Chamber,” meaning “Chamber of Stars,” the team believes that these primitive people practiced ritualistic burial-like behavior and may have even held some type of funeral for their loved ones that passed on. This chamber lies deep in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa.

“What’s important for people to understand is that the remains were found practically alone in this remote chamber in the absence of any other major fossil animals, ” lead author Dr Paul Dirks of James Cook University, said.

A writer for Anthropology wrote of the context of the discovery.

“Unlike Atatpuerca, where the bodies could simply have been dropped unceremoniously down a shaft, the route to the final resting place of the Rising Star individuals was much more difficult, as attested by the efforts that had to be made by the wiry female cavers who were hired specifically for the exploration. With passages narrowing to 18 inches, and in some parts 10 inches, whoever deposited the bones went to a lot of trouble to get the job done.”

“The team notes that the bones bear no marks of scavengers or carnivores or any other signs that non-hominin agents or natural processes, such as moving water, carried these individuals into the chamber,” Medical News Today wrote of the discovery context of the previously unknown human-like species.

“We explored every alternative scenario, including mass death, an unknown carnivore, water transport from another location, or accidental death in a death trap, among others,” National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand said. “In examining every other option, we were left with intentional body disposal by Homo naledi as the most plausible scenario.”

H. naledi, they concluded, may have disposed of their dead in a ritualistic manner that was thought to be exclusive to modern humans.

Homo naledi is a primitive member of our genus, perhaps the most primitive we’ve ever seen, but it had the capacity both mentally and behaviorally to dispose of remains in a ritual fashion,” Berger said.

What’s more, examining the distribution of the bones led the researchers to believe that the remains were deposited in their resting spot over the course of perhaps centuries. Not everyone is buying the burial ritual theory, but the team claims to have considered all other possibilities.

The bodies of H. naledi were brought to the tomb intact, and there was no evidence of cannibalism or animals having eaten their flesh. There were no tooth marks on the fossilized bones. The chamber itself has only one entrance which has no opening from the surface, so these people did not accidentally fall in over the centuries.

“We can spin a lot of yarns,” Harcourt-Smith said. He said that maybe H. naledi wasn’t involved in burial rituals, and perhaps they were just trying to prevent the dead bodies from stinking up living areas. Another possibility he offered about how H. naledi remains ended up deep within the cave was that perhaps “another species was throwing them down.”

[Photo Credit: Berger et al. eLife]