Since its discovery in 2013, the new species Homo naledi has been estimated to be between 900,000 and 2.5 million years old. But Professor Herries and his fellow scientists have discovered the Homo naledi skeletons are only 236,000 to 335,000 years old. Other, as yet, undiscovered skeletons could be even younger, making it an ancient species that may have interacted with Homo sapiens.
“People are interested in human evolution stories because ultimately it is about the origins of where we come from and who we met along the way,” said Professor Herries today when the world’s media was informed of the story. “It is extraordinary to find such an archaic looking human species that is so recent.
“The only other example of this is the hobbit Homo floresiensis that was discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores about 15 years ago and has courted controversy ever since. These finds change our view of how human evolution works and progressed. They show that in many parts of the world our ancestors (early Homo sapiens) would have overlapped with these other human species and come into direct competition with them for land and resources.
“The present day is actually a very rare time in our history because we are now the only human species inhabiting the Earth. Around 25,000 years ago, we shared it with Neanderthals, with whom we are known to have interbred. Around 50,000 years ago, the Denisovans also bred with our ancestors, and 75,000 years ago the ‘hobbit’ still lived in Indonesia.
“Now we know that another archaic species lived alongside our ancestors in their home continent, Africa. So while Homo naledi is not our direct ancestor, it could be part of our story in the way Denisovans and Neanderthals are.”
Professor Herries will be taking eight archaeology students from La Trobe on a four-week excavation at the Middle Stone Age site of Amanzi Springs in South Africa from 25 May. The excavation will include resolving changes in stone tool technology during the period that Homo naledi has now been dated.
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