Early human species associated dead with caves
Respect for the dead, and placing them in caves appears to pre-date the current species of humanity and might even be the root of the concept of an underworld.
Homo naledi is a species of hominin that lived between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago. Scientists announced its discovery in 2015 after finding a cave just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, full of its remains. It represents the richest fossil hominin site in Africa ever found.
According to the eLife journal, scientists have now announced the discovery of another chamber full of H. naledi remains. Scientists found multiple individuals, including a child and the “wonderfully complete” skull of an adult male. In total, they recovered 131 hominin specimens. Of these they have so far identified two adults and one juvenile, but they believe further analysis will reveal more.
Researchers led by Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, say the presence of an additional chamber with so many remains reinforces the theory that this species purposefully disposed of their dead—in this case hiding them within the deep confines of a difficult-to-access cave.
The chamber, dubbed the Lesedi Chamber, is 30 meters below ground; to get to it, scientists had to use a path that twists and turns through the cave until they reached a point where only one small person could squeeze through.
John Hawks, an author on all three studies, said in a statement: “This likely adds weight to the hypothesis that H. naledi was using dark, remote places to cache its dead.
Hawks believes H. naledi purposefully hid their dead in the chamber, adding that this behaviour would indicate intelligence and possibly even culture. It mimics similar findings from a Neanderthal archaeological site in Spain, Sima de los Huesos, where researchers found evidence in 2015 of Neanderthals disposing of their dead 400,000 years ago.
While Homo naledi has a brains a third the size of modern humanity, it seems to share a very deep aspect of behaviour that we recognise, an enduring care for other individuals that continues after their deaths.
It also shows that the underworld was associated with being a place of the dead.
The species exist around 200,000 years ago when modern human behaviour was just starting to emerge.