A historic discovery about an extinct human species that may have deliberately buried its dead and carved meaningful symbols in caves was announced at the weeklong conference honoring the life and legacy of Richard Leakey.
National Geographic Explorer in Residence and world-renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger made the announcement on the first day of the conference, “Africa: The Human Cradle: An International Conference Paying Tribute to Richard E. Leakey” held June 5–9 at the Charles B. Wang Center.
Berger and his team unearthed new evidence in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa, suggesting Homo naledi — an extinct hominin species — buried their dead and used symbols for meaning-making. Both behaviors were thought to be exclusive to large-brained hominins, and these findings could be some of the earliest examples of mortuary practices and meaning-making by a small-brained hominin, thus altering our understanding of human evolution.
If confirmed, the burials would be the earliest yet known by at least 100,000 years. The claims were made in two research papers uploaded to the preprint server bioRxiv.
The skeletal remains discovered in the cave are concentrated in a single, hard-to-reach subsystem and are dated to between 335,000 and 241,000 years ago — a period when modern humans were just beginning to emerge in Africa.
The weeklong Leakey conference began June 5 with the announcement and a lecture given by Louise Leakey, “Six Decades — The Search for Fossils at Lake Turkana,” an overview of the discoveries an expeditions of the Koobi Fara Research Project in the Turkana Basin. Louise Leakey, the daughter of Richard and Meave Leakey, is a research professor in the Department of Anthropology in Stony Brook University’s College of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the international advisory board of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI).