TechThe oldest burial site discovered, which is now challenging human evolution theories

The oldest burial site discovered, which is now challenging human evolution theories

They found a grave. It was not created by our species.
They found a grave. It was not created by our species.
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Anna Wajs-Wiejacka

21 June 2024 11:49

Palaeontologists from South Africa have announced the discovery of the oldest known burial site in the world, containing the remains of a distant human relative. Until now, it was believed that such complex behaviours as burying the dead were beyond their capabilities.

The team, led by palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger, discovered the remains of Homo naledi, a tree-climbing hominid from the Stone Age. The remains were buried about 30 metres underground in a cave system near Johannesburg. "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," stated the scientists, as quoted by

Berger and his team suggested that their discovery challenges the theory that only the development of larger brains allowed for performing complex, "meaning-giving" activities such as burying the dead. Homo naledi was a primitive species located at the intersection of great apes and modern humans, with brains the size of oranges and standing about 1.5 metres tall.

According to Berger and his team, this species, which had curved fingers and toes, tool-holding hands, and feet adapted for walking, has debunked the notion that our evolutionary path is a straight line.

During the excavations that began in 2018, oval burials were discovered, which were believed to have been deliberately dug by the species' representatives and then covered to bury the bodies. The graves contained the remains of at least five individuals.

These discoveries indicate that burial practices were not limited to Homo sapiens or other hominids with large brain sizes – the scientists claim.

They added that the burial site is not the only indication of Homo naledi's capacity for complex emotional and cognitive behaviours.

Does brain size matter?

Berger and his team suggest that Homo naledi also developed symbolic practices. The evidence for this includes the discovery of seemingly deliberately smoothed surfaces on a nearby cave pillar and the presence of engravings forming geometric shapes, including a "rough hashtag figure."

That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors – Berger said in an interview with AFP.

Scientists emphasise that although the discoveries require further analysis, they "alter our understandings of human evolution." Burial, meaning-giving, and even "art" may have a much more complicated, dynamic, and non-human history than previously thought, stated Agustín Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and co-author of the study.

Not everyone is convinced

Many researchers are pretty sceptical about Berger's team's discoveries. Doubts arise from the fact that no external experts were invited to analyse the evidence gathered during the excavations.

Many researchers lean towards the theory that the discovered burial sites were not intentionally created but happened by chance. This is supported by the fact that the remains found in the cave were scattered and not adequately secured, as is typically the case with intentional burials.

Although many scientists do not rule out the possibility of an intentional burial, they point out that all other possibilities, such as natural forces, must first be excluded. National Geographic suggests that the bodies of the dead could have been brought into the cave by water.

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