200,000-Year-Old Burial Rethinks Human History

For many decades, we have understood the Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals as the only intelligent species in the Homo family. Our oldest finds of symbols painted on cave walls and “ritualistic” burials have only solidified that understanding as they don’t go further than the first appearances of Neanderthals.

Homo Naledi is an extinct species of humans who were alive around 335,000–236,000 years ago. They were first discovered in 2013 in the Rising Star Cave of South Africa. Recent research into their living spaces has uncovered behaviours we associate with the more “advanced” and intelligent Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. 

Paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer- Dr Lee Berger and his team have continued working since the initial 2013 discovery in the sprawling cave system to further our understanding of our ancient human ancestors.

Berger’s team found remains of Homo Naledi buried in the   fetal position which are estimated to be about 100,000 years older than the current oldest burial which is thought to be of a 3-year-old child in the Panga ya Saidi cave in Kenya, Africa around 78,000 years old

The team also found symbols on the cave walls that are dated around 241,000 to 335,000 years ago. The large margin of error in the date is due to a need for precise dating tests. A more accurate age of the engravings will be revealed when better dating tests are conducted.

The symbols on the walls are deeply carved and include geometrical shapes and a cross-hatched symbol resembling a ‘hashtag’ (#). Similar symbols by Homo Sapiens were used only 80,000 years ago which were thought of as a way to communicate information non-verbally.

“These recent findings suggest intentional burials, the use of symbols, and meaning-making activities by Homo Naledi,” said Berger who is named the lead author in two of the three studies they submitted that are yet to be peer-reviewed and published. 

What makes these discoveries even more fascinating from a paleoanthropological perspective is that the Homo Naledi species had a brain that is about one-third the size of our modern human brains. These findings caused by a species with such a low brain capacity throw our entire understanding of human history into chaos.

Traits like language- or at least the use of symbols to convey information, and respect of death are behaviours that aren’t unique to humans and may not have even invented them. It also throws out the assumed correlation between skull/brain volume and intelligence.

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