Two years after a tip off by cavers who found bones in limestone tunnels in the Rising Star Cave outside Johannesburg, Berger and his team announce the discovery of a new species of human relative, Homo naledi, that appears to have buried its dead. Berger’s team comes up with the theory a few days after reaching an isolated chamber where the fossils — consisting of infants, children, adults and elderly individuals — were found. Homo naledi stood about five feet tall, had long legs, and its feet are almost identical to humans, although its fingers are longer and curved.
There is no damage from predators, there is no sign of a catastrophe. We had to come to the inevitable conclusion that Homo naledi, a non-human species of hominid, was deliberately disposing of its dead in that dark chamber. Why, we don’t know. Until the moment of discovery of ‘naledi,’ I would have probably said to you that it was our defining character. The idea of burial of the dead or ritualized body disposal is something utterly uniquely human. We have just encountered another species that perhaps thought about its own mortality, and went to great risk and effort to dispose of its dead in a deep, remote, chamber right behind us. It absolutely questions what makes us human. And I don’t think we know anymore what does.