Oldest Burial Site Discovery Challenges Human Evolution


| LAST UPDATE 06/11/2023

By Stanley Wickens
ancient burial site discovery
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Scientists have unearthed the world's oldest known burial site in South Africa, containing the remains of a distant relative of humans previously thought incapable of complex behavior. This finding challenges our current understanding of human evolution and raises fascinating questions about the origins of sophisticated activities like burial.

Led by the renowned palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger, the team made their remarkable find deep within the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO world heritage site near Johannesburg. They stumbled upon several specimens of Homo naledi, a Stone Age hominid with a small brain size, buried about 100 feet underground in a cave system. These ancient interments, dating back at least 200,000 years, predate any evidence of Homo sapiens burials by a staggering 100,000 years. Traditionally, it was believed that the development of larger brains in our species facilitated complex activities such as burying the dead. However, these newfound burials challenge that notion. As Berger and his colleagues noted in their yet-to-be-peer-reviewed papers, "These are the most ancient interments yet recorded in the hominin record, earlier than evidence of Homo sapiens interments by at least 100,000 years."

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Homo naledi, a primitive species positioned between apes and modern humans, possessed brains the size of oranges and stood at around five feet tall. This discovery further disrupts the idea of a linear evolutionary progression. With curved fingers and toes, as well as hands and feet adapted for tool use and walking, Homo naledi shattered our preconceived notions of our evolutionary path. The burial site, located in the "Rising Star" cave system, is not the only evidence of complex behavior exhibited by Homo naledi. The researchers also found engravings on cave pillars, including a "rough hashtag figure," suggesting symbolic practices. This challenges the notion that humans are the sole inventors of such behaviors. Lee Berger, in an interview with AFP, boldly stated, "That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors."

While these findings have generated some controversy, with previous accusations of lacking scientific rigor, they undeniably have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of human evolution. Agustín Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and co-author of the studies, remarked, "Burial, meaning-making, even 'art' could have a much more complicated, dynamic, non-human history than we previously thought." As the research undergoes further scrutiny and analysis, we eagerly anticipate gaining deeper insights into the ancient burial practices of our distant relatives. These discoveries remind us that the story of human evolution is far from simple, and the behaviors we once believed to be uniquely human may have deeper roots in our shared history with other species.

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