A team led by Professor Lee Berger, an American paleoanthropologist professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has discovered a new human ancestor. 

Named the Homo naledi—naledi translating to “star” in the Sesotho language taking its name from the Rising Star cave where the discovery was made in the Cradle of Humanity world heritage site—the species is believed to be 2.5 to 3 million years old, but scientists aren’t sure, said Berger. 

As for the Homo naledi’s characteristics, it reportedly had a brain the size of an orange, a thin body about 5 feet tall, and weighed approximately 45 kilograms (almost 100 pounds.) The naledi had hands that appeared “human-like” on the surface

with curved fingers, which indicate ability to use tools, more so than other early hominin species and its climbing capability. Its shoulders however, resemble those of an ape. 

The journey to the homo naledi began in 2013 when an amateur caver and a university geologist came to Berger to show them a piece of a fossil jawbone they found. That would eventually lead to the six “underground astronaut” women who squeezed into 7-inch cave openings to retrieve the bones of up to 15 skeletons.

"We found everything from infants to babies to toddlers to teens, young adults, old individuals. It is like nothing that we could have ever imagined," says Berger. "Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage."

Berger mainly believes the Homo naledi to be human-like because its fossils were found in a deep underground chamber of sorts where Berger believes the dead were taken, though many scientists think he’s reaching. Until now, humans were the only ones characterized by their understanding and ritualization of death.

"Overall, Homo naledi looks like one of the most primitive members of our genus, but it also has some surprisingly human-like features, enough to warrant placing it in the genus Homo," said John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an author of the papers announcing the new species.

[via News 24/CNN/NYT]