Mystery Man Unearthed

Find out about the recently discovered remains that are giving scientists new clues about our ancestry.

Find out about the recently discovered remains that are giving scientists

new clues about our ancestry.

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Published September 10, 2015

Squeezing through the dark, narrow passageways of South Africa's Rising Star cave system in September of 2013, two explorers came across a chute leading down to a chamber deep underground. Littering the chamber floor was something incredibly rare and unexpected: bones now known to belong to a new human ancestor species

The cavers reported the find to paleoanthropologist and current National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger, who assembled a team to investigate. Because of the cavern’s tight, twisting passages, the team members needed to be small—so Berger picked six petite female scientists to venture inside while he and some 50 other scientists helped carry out the project at an aboveground command center. In total the team gathered roughly 1,550 bones from the chamber.

Scientists then examined the remains and discovered they'd found a prehistoric human relative that no one had known about. They named the species Homo naledi. (In a local African language, naledi means "star.") Based on the shape of the skull and jawbone, an artist created a clay bust of a male Homo naledi—a task that took about 700 hours to complete.

But scientists don’t have Homo naledi completely figured out yet. For instance, they're still trying to determine how long ago the species lived. So researchers will continue to examine the model and the remains for clues. "These bones can tell us a lot about our ancestors," Berger says. One thing the fossils say for sure? That there are still more secrets left to unearth about our human family tree.

Text by Sarah Wassner Flynn

Adapted by Rose Davidson, NGS Staff

Building the Face of a Newly Found Ancestor As a paleoartist, John Gurche focuses on combining art and science to create the faces of our long-lost ancestors. With the discovery of Homo naledi, the newest addition to the genus Homo, Gurche was tasked with determining how this creature would have looked, based on bone scans of the fossils found.