I’m currently in South Africa and was lucky enough to visit the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site, located about one hour’s drive from Johannesburg.
I donned my safety helmet and descended down into the Sterkfontein Caves where the iconic “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot” specimens were discovered (Australopithicus). Discovered in 1947, “Mrs Ples” is one of the best known ‘pre-human’ skulls found. “Little Foot” was described much more recently during the 1990’s, and represents a near complete individual.
However it was the “Almost Human” exhibition at the nearby Maropeng Visitor Centre that really excited me. In 2015 a new species of hominin was described, Homo naledi. Due to some certain features of the skull such as a relatively small space for the brain, H. naledi was originally estimated to be around 2 million years old (about the same as Australopithicus). However once the fossils were dated, they were shown to be much more recent (~335,000 – 236,000 years ago).
Two chambers with multiple individuals have been recovered by a team of scientists who squeezed through narrow crevices and tunnels in the Rising Star cave system to retrieve them. There is evidence that the bodies were deliberately placed in the cave system near to the time of their death – could this be evidence of sophisticated burial rituals?
There is an abundance of original material on display, including one individual dubbed “Neo” – the most complete H. naledi specimen. It was a fascinating place to visit and one I very much recommend!