Imagine if your commute to work required that you squeeze yourself through a nine-inch crack in the Earth’s crust and avoid injury on something called the dragon’s back, all to make your way into a hot and humid cavern. It’s certainly not the easiest commute, but for an intrepid group of scientists in South Africa, it was the journey they were willing to make twice a day. Why? Well, they were there to check out one of the most incredible paleontology finds in recent history!

We’re familiar with the iconic image of the “evolution of man.” It depicts our clear trajectory from hairy, hunched animal to tall, proud, hairless human. Over the past few decades, though, we have been discovering evidence of early human species that walked alongside us for millennia. And, in some cases, they became a part of our own family tree!

These new discoveries are remarkable not only because they reshape how we see ourselves. They’re also an amazing story of how social media made some of these discoveries possible!

So, get your caving helmet on. We’re heading into the depths of the Earth to learn more about one of the most extraordinary paleontological finds of the century!

Image: three students holding up three skulls from the evolution of humans, right in front of their own heads

Source: Wikimedia

Into the Rising Star Caves

How did we, as a species, get here? We often think of ourselves as remarkably unique; the pinnacle of years of linear evolution from a primitive ape, directly to us, the only known organisms to blast off into space and land on other planets. But is this narrative really true? Well, some recently discovered cousins of ours are reframing how we think about our origins as a species!

Hidden deep beneath the Earth’s surface are the remains of an unknown human-like species.

The discovery of this ancient species is a special one. Unlike the vast majority of other ancient human discoveries where just a single tooth or finger bone is found, scientists were unearthing entire skeletons from the Rising Star Cave system! In total, they have collected the remains from over 20 individuals. 

From these remains, we’ve managed to fill in a few gaps in our own stories. This new species, known as Homo naledi, is a cousin of ours; they roamed the Earth at the same time as our early ancestors. And, their discovery at Rising Star Cave has reframed how we look at our own selves as a species! 

And, if all of that isn’t cool enough, pulling off this excavation required the use of one of humanity’s most incredible technological advancements: the power of the internet! 

Without social media, this group of researchers wouldn’t have been possible. 

So, let’s get down into that cave with those intrepid explorers! This video from one of our longtime favorite channels, It’s Okay To Be Smart, brings us the story of these cousins who roamed alongside us on the African plains not all that long ago.

It’s Okay To Be Smart has long been one of our favorite science channels on YouTube. They cover all kinds of topics and explain them in ways that even the “not science” person will enjoy. Seriously, they are the place to go if you, or somebody you know, has a curious mind.

The Evolution of Us

The discovery that our ancestors lived alongside many other hominid species like Homo naledi and Homo floresiensis, and even interbred with other hominids like Neanderthals and Denisovans, suggests that our evolution is not straightforward. 2

Indeed, as we discover the remains of other ancient humans and human ancestors, we’re finding how interconnected these species really are. 3 We, Homo sapiens, are alone here today but our ancestry is made up of a woven stream of other species throughout our history. It’s not a straight path by any means.

If you want to learn more about Homo naledi and the discoveries made at Rising Star Cave, check out this great article from Nature. It dives even deeper into Homo naledi’s unique physical characteristics, and how they fit into our interwoven stream of ancestors.

The discovery of Homo Nnledi has reshaped the way we think of ourselves, and the lives of those early humans. But the discovery goes beyond that. Now, as teams study the specimens of Rising Star Cave, they are taking an innovative approach. Scans of the specimens are available to the public and are being studied by a diverse team of interdisciplinary experts!

You can learn more about that in an article we wrote featuring Marina Elliott, who you met in the video. Check it out:

12 minutes

Finding Human Ancestors and Shifting Perspectives

The discovery of Homo Naledi, a new human ancestor, was a momentous occasion. It not only shifted our understanding of our origins, it also changed the way we conduct and talk about scientific research!

Read More

Learning from our Cousins…

Imagine a time when we weren’t the only hominids walking around. Our ancestors, just 30,000 to 300,000 years ago, were running into other species that looked a lot like us as they wandered the African plains and ventured towards Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. 4

This is a stunning reminder of how similar we all are to one another, as well as how similar we are to the other species on this planet. Humans are not superior because we have art, use technology, or mourn our dead. There are species that look nothing like us who all do those things. So, if these “human” actions are shared across such a range of species, perhaps we aren’t as different as we like to think.

Stay beautiful & keep laughing!

-Liesl

Dig a little deeper into the ancient past!

If you want to keep exploring some articles about ancient finds, go check out our Archaeology Tag! It’s a great place to get curious and do some excavating of your own.

Archaeology on EWC

Notes:

  1. It’s Okay To Be Smart. “This Face Changes the Human Story.” YouTube, 21 Oct. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ettIbYhADjI. Accessed 26 Nov. 2019.
  2. Dolgova, Olga, and Oscar Lao. “Evolutionary and Medical Consequences of Archaic Introgression into Modern Human Genomes.” Genes, vol. 9, no. 7, 18 July 2018, p. 358, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6070777/, 10.3390/genes9070358. Accessed 26 Nov. 2019.
  3. Mounier, Aurélien, and Marta Mirazón Lahr. “Deciphering African Late Middle Pleistocene Hominin Diversity and the Origin of Our Species.” Nature Communications, vol. 10, no. 1, 10 Sept. 2019, www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-11213-w, 10.1038/s41467-019-11213-w. Accessed 26 Nov. 2019.
  4. Warren, Matthew. “Move over, DNA: Ancient Proteins Are Starting to Reveal Humanity’s History.” Nature, vol. 570, no. 7762, June 2019, pp. 433–436, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01986-x, 10.1038/d41586-019-01986-x. Accessed 26 Nov. 2019.

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

COO of Ever Widening Circles, Founder of EWCed

Liesl is a camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often floundering—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV