New hominin fossils found at Sterkfontein

The newly discovered molar. Pictures: Supplied.

Specimens can be associated with early stone tool-bearing sediments that entered cave 2 million years ago.

Two new hominin fossils have been found in a previously uninvestigated chamber in the Sterkfontein Caves, northwest of Johannesburg, raising more questions than answers. The specimens, a finger bone and a molar, are part of a set of four specimens which seem to be from early hominins that can be associated with early stone tool-bearing sediments that entered the cave more than two million years ago.

“The specimens are exciting, not only because they are associated with early stone tools, but also because they possess a mixture of intriguing features,” said lead researcher Dominic Stratford, a lecturer at the Wits School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies. The first specimen, a proximal finger bone, is significantly larger and more robust than any other hand bone of any hominin yet found in South African.

“It is almost complete and shows a really interesting mix of modern and archaic features,” said Stratford. “For example, the specimen is markedly curved – more curved than Homo naledi and is similarly curved to the much older species, Australopithecus afarensis.

Researchers hunt for fossils in Milner Hall in the Sterkfontein Caves.

Researchers hunt for fossils in Milner Hall in the Sterkfontein Caves.

“This specimen is unique in the South African plio-pleistocene fossil hominin record and deserves more studies.” The other fossil is a relatively small, nearly complete adult first molar tooth that also has striking similarities to species Homo habilis.

“In size and shape it also bears a resemblance to two of the 10 first molars of the Homo naledi specimens, although further and more detailed comparisons are needed to verify this,” said an excited Stratford. The shape of the tooth and particularly the shape and relative sizes of the cones on the surface of the tooth suggest this specimen belonged to an early member of the Homo genus and can be associated with early stone tools, dated recently to 2.18 million years ago.

“The two other hominin fossils found are still being studied and further excavations are planned to, hopefully, find more pieces and expand our understanding of who these intriguing bones belonged to and how they lived and died on the Sterkfontein hill more than 2 million years ago,” said Stratford.

In September last year, the discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of hominin, was revealed in Johannesburg. The find, consisting of more than 1 500 fossils, was found in a chamber in the Rising Star Cave, located in the Malmani dolomites in Bloubank River valley, which forms part of the Cradle of Mankind. The fossilised remains were of at least 15 hominid individuals and it is believed their remains were placed in the chamber after death, which pointed towards ritualised behaviour.

“We have just met a new species of human relative that deliberately disposed of its dead,” Lee Berger, project leader and palaeoanthropologist at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, announced as the fossils were unveiled.

“Until this moment in history, we thought the idea of ritualised behaviours directed towards the dead … was actually unique to Homo sapiens.

“We saw ourselves as different. We have now seen, we believe, a species that had that same capability — and it is an extraordinary thing.”

Additional reporting by AFP

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