The fossil assemblages of Homo naledi from the Rising Star cave system record the biology of an extinct human relative first discovered in 2013. This species existed at the same time as early modern humans were beginning to emerge, but appears to be a deep branch of our relatives, with a brain only one third our size. With the remains of at least 25 infants, children, and adults, this evidence provides an powerful opportunity to examine the biology and behavior of a species whose common heritage with us may go back to the beginning of our genus, Homo.
Multiple lines of evidence suggest that the bodies may have been deliberately placed after death. This would be the first evidence of mortuary practices aside from modern humans or Neanderthals. Examining this hypothesis requires contextual evidence of very high resolution.
We aim to investigate the social conditions of culture in H. naledi. This project will apply 3D scanning throughout the collection together with computer-enhanced reconstruction to reconstruct associations. We will correlate skeletons with their original context, enabling us to reconstruct cultural events and subsequent taphonomic processes in the cave. Ages, sexes, and relationships inform about the structure of the social group and conditions for cultural learning. Their repeated activity deep within the cave system required the transmission of learned information. Mortuary practices, if confirmed, reflect the depth of cultural learning and knowledge about death.
We will host a workshop of multidisciplinary experts to examine the cultural practices associated with death in human societies, and the experience of death by nonhuman species of animals. Our goal is to create and encourage a broader conversation about what these behaviors mean in humans and how we may recognize them in ancient hominins.
This is a unique examination of the conditions of cultural evolution in a nonhuman species that may have preceded or paralleled our own.