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Professor Explains Discovery of Extinct Human Species to Rutgers Students

CUNY Assistant Professor William Harcourt-Smith Gave Talk on The Discovery of Homo Naledi Fossils, And Its Implications For The Future
Homo Naledi fossils
Homo Naledi fossils give us clues about our ancestors from hundreds of thousands of years ago

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ--On February 17, a group of around thirty people gathered in room #001 of the Ruth Adams building to hear a discussion on a newly-discovered extinct species of human.

William Harcourt-Smith, an Assistant Professor at the City University of New York's (CUNY) Lehman College, explained the excavation of "Homo Naledi" fossils to the audience, the morphology and behavior of these early humans, and their significance to palentology and to our understanding of our past. 

The excavation of these fossils, Harcourt-Smith noted, occurred in 2013 at the Rising Star Cave system in Gauteng, South Africa.

In September 2013, recreational cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker found a 98-foot deep chamber littered with fossil bones.

These bones came from a previously undiscovered species of hominin which, according to Smith, could be 900,000 years 0ld. 

In 2015, anthropologists assigned these bones to a new species of human, the Homo naledi.

Hundreds of bones were found from around thirteen to fourteen individuals, according to to Smith, including juveniles and adults. 

These fossils were found in close proximity to the "Cradle of Humankind" World Heritage Site, where the fossils of the Australopithecus, a human-like ape that lived around 2 million years ago, were historically discovered in 1947.

Interestingly, the Homo Naledi has both australopithecus-like features and human-like features. 

Smith elaborated on these features, which include a large brow ridge, a small brain capacity, and a long, femoral neck, all Australopithecus-like features.  However, these old humans had a flat foot that more closely resembles modern humans. 

These hominins may have had something else in common with humans, Harcourt-Smith explained. This "something" is a gruesome and ruthless aspect of humanity.

The location of their remains, one-hundred feet underground in a cave, suggests that they were thrown down there, leading some to believe that the Homo Naledi may have exhibited a propensity to slaughter dozens of their own kind.

"Perhaps, they were occupying it. Perhaps they were transported in in a flood-like situation. Perhaps there was predator accumulation or it was some sort of death trap," explained the professor.

But, Harcourt-Smith said those explanations may not hold up, given the specifics uncovered.

"There's no evidence of occupation. A careful analysis of the bones indicate no water transport. There's no cut marks that are detectable on these bones. There's no tooth marks left on these bones," he said.  "And this has led some people and the authors of the team involved in this to suspect that they were deliberately disposed of, that they were somehow thrown down there."

Finally, Smith discussed the future implications of these findings, stating that this new addition to our phylogenetic tree has led to even more uncertainty about our ancestors and our past. 

Smith was excited about future research into these fossils and asserted that more information on the Homo Naledi fossils will be released in a few weeks.

"The good news is there's a lot more to come. There's great work to come on trying to think about the locomotion of the Naledi."

Each of the following individuals and organizations were acknowledged for their role in the excavation and research:

  • Lee Berger
  • the University of the Witswatersrand
  • the National Research Foundation
  • the Gauteng Provincial Government
  • SA National Centre of Excellence in Paleosciences
  • the National Geographic Society Center for the Study of Human Origins
  • New York University
  • the Leakey Foundation
  • the California Academy of Sciences
  • NYCEP and Lehman College at CUNY
  • the American Museum of Natural History
  • Ashley Berger
  • Merril Van Der Walt
  • Bonita De Clerk Peter Schmid
  • Steve Churchill
  • Wilma Lawrence