It is not often that an archaeological discovery can completely change what we know (or think we know) about prehistoric belief. But it has happened. The announcement yesterday of the discovery of Homo naledi, a completely new species of human, changes everything. Let me explain how.
The latest addition to our direct family tree, Homo naledi, was actually found by two cavers in 2013, in a cave system known as Rising Star, located within South Africa’s famous Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Recognising the importance of the discovery, a team of sixty scientists and dozens of volunteer cavers started a 21-day exploration and dig during November. Hoping to recover some bones, maybe a skull, maybe even a skeleton, in just three days they had amassed so many bones that research leader Lee Berger described it as “something different and extraordinary”.
In all, the team recovered 15 skeletons, with many more still lying in the cave. In fact, so many bones have been recovered (1,500 to date) that almost every skeletal element of the body is represented multiple times throughout different age groups: from infants to teens, to young adults and the elderly. Excavators believe the individuals may have been part of an extended family.
Homo naledi was very tall for its time (around 5 foot), very slender (around 100lbs) but with well-muscled joints. It also had a curiously tiny head with a correspondingly small brain, the smallest of all Homo and even Australopithecine species. It is very possible (even though no dates are yet available, excavators have guessed at around 2-3 million years-old) that Homo naledi is the base of our species, the link between the last Australopithecine in our evolution and Homo habilis, hitherto the earliest homo species.
This is all incredible, ground-breaking stuff that will, quite literally, rewrite the history books (including mine) but, for me, this is not the most exciting aspect of the discovery. The location of the bones, at the back of a very narrow cave (as narrow as 17.5 centimetres in places and so remote no other animal lived there), begs the question: how did they get there? The answer is revolutionary.
The excavators quickly ruled out possibilities such as mass death, transport by water, predation, and other natural, or at least rational, reasons. This left them with the irrational. It slowly dawned upon the excavators that they were witnessing deliberate activity; Homo naledi deliberately disposed of their dead at the end of a very long, dark, and dangerous tunnel. This is revelatory as we are only just accepting that, perhaps, maybe, Neanderthals did something similar, but, apart from that, the trait is believed unique to anatomically-modern humans (Homo sapiens).
The conclusion has to be that ritual activity goes way beyond our modern incarnation, right back to when the genus Homo first emerged. But Homo naledi had a very small brain. How could they have thought symbolically? Current wisdom would suggest they cannot. “What does that mean for us?” ponders Berger. “Did we inherit it, has it always been there in our lineage, or did they invent it?”
I think the answer may lie in trance. We know that people experiencing trance often describe the appearance of a tunnel before them (caused since the active neurons in the brain at this stage of trance have a spiralling tendency). Although it is hard to prove, this phenomenon is likely for all higher-order mammals. Modern shamans describe going down the tunnel and stepping out the other side into an otherworld, where they see spirits or deceased ancestors. Homo naledi may have experienced similar but what this species also seems to have done is extrapolate thoughts about this sensation and replicate them in this world. If dead spirits lay at the end of a long tunnel, then it must have seemed logical to put the remains of the dead in similar locations. But this requires symbolic thought – something only we are supposed to have.
The work on the new discoveries will take years longer and new surprises will almost certainly appear. But it no longer seems outlandish to suggest that what set Homo apart (not “us” but our entire species lineage) from earlier species was its ability to have symbolic thought and use inner experiences (such as trance) to determine outer actions. (That’s until we find a species of Australopithecine that does similar!)
Spirituality (as it relates to the treatment of the dead and a concept of an afterlife) may have started with Homo naledi, our earliest direct ancestor to bear the prefix Homo. It’s a staggering thought. It opens up a completely new way of seeing prehistory and the actions of our earlier relatives. Were hand axes art? Did fire have a symbolic importance? Were cults shared culturally in or between groups? These are questions we thought we would never ask.
In my field of prehistoric belief, this is the most exciting discovery in my lifetime. I only hope my mind is big enough to take it all in!