Thursday, May 11, 2017

Breaking news - 250,000 years old

Michael - Thursday

On Tuesday we met Neo, which is the Sesotho word for a gift. Neo is a new addition to the Homo naledi family that made big news about eighteen months ago, when a team led by University of the Witwatersrand professor Lee Burger announced the discovery of a new member of our genus at a cave in the Cradle of Humankind complex near Johannesburg. That made a very big stir at the time and led to a feature article in National Geographic which supports the work. My blog about the details of the find and how it came about can be read HERE.

Neo's remarkably complete skull. Photo John Hawks.
Neo is a remarkable individual. Most of his skeleton remains and can be reconstructed. And his skull is almost complete which will allow experts to recreate his face quite accurately. And there's another important fact about him, but we'll come to that later.

Lee Burger at
the announcement
Photo The Citizen
Murder is Everywhere is motivated by mysteries, and the original discovery left us with plenty of those. In the first place, the specimens found in the Dinaledi chamber of the Rising Star complex of caves had a strange combination of features from both Homo and Australopithecus. The skull is really small—the brain was about the size of an orange—yet adult individuals were comparatively large at around five feet and a hundred pounds. The hands share many of the features of our own, yet the fingers curl and the shoulders slope which is more characteristic of the Australopithecines who were probably tree climbers. The feet are quite similar to ours and the legs are long, suggesting that naledi walked and ran in a similar way to us, and spent much time on the ground. This intriguing combination of features of the two genera led to excited speculation that naledi might be the bridge between them. That would imply an age of something like two and a half million years.

Then there was the mystery of how the fossils had accumulated in the Dinaledi cave in the first place. There was no sign of them being transported by water, carried by animals, or that the cave had ever been open from above. And the cave is very hard to get to - on one occasion Lee Burger spent an hour trying to get out of it and had to be dragged up from above by his arms. Also this was not an isolated individual but a number of individuals of various ages. Was it possible that they brought their dead to this cave for burial? There has never been any evidence that any species but ours does that. It was a controversial theory. In particular, the apparently ancient morphology of naledi made that implausible. And after all, it was possible that the structure of the cave systems had changed markedly over the millennia.

The two cave structures. Diagram Marina Elliot
The announcement on Tuesday where Neo was introduced to his admiring relatives, albeit distant in time as well as genetics, solved the first mystery, and Neo gave a big push towards solving the second. The remains of Homo naledi are around a quarter of a million years old—about a tenth of the age originally suspected. No less than six different techniques were applied over the last eighteen months and gave consistent results. The sedimentary rocks that formed the caves are recent and since they didn't form around the fossils, that gives an upper age. And direct dating of several fossil teeth using the Uranium-Thorium technique confirmed that the age must be between 230 and 330 thousand years old.

The fact that the species is so modern, makes the burial theory much more plausible. But there is still another factor. Neo is from a different cave from the one originally discovered more than a hundred yards away. And that cave, too, contains several individuals of different ages including one young child. Some random natural process concentrating a number of skeletons in one cave was unlikely, doing it twice is almost impossible.

Comparison of a sapiens and a naledi skull of roughly the same age

Two hundred and fifty thousand years ago is like yesterday for a paleontologist. It means that when Neo walked the earth he had neighbors. Us. Amazingly it seems that (at least) two species of Homo lived in southern Africa at the same time. Even more intriguing, this is the time period where 'modern' behavior like burial and self-adornment and the making of complex tools developed with Home sapiens. So, indeed, it is quite possible that naledi learned to dispose of their dead in a ritual way from us.

Or did we learn it from them?


Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


Thursday May 25, 6PM
Orinda Books
Orinda, California.

Wednesday May 31
Janet Rudolph Literary Salon:
"The History of Hot Places: Clashes between Colonialism and Local Cultures”
Joint appearance with Michael Cooper


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, comes out June 6, 2017.


Dying to Live (Kubu #6) to be released in May in UK & South Africa and in October in USA

May 17
18:00 – 20:00
Orenda Road Show (Stanley)
Waterstones Picadilly (London)

May 19-21   
Franschhoek Literary Festival (Michael).

Saturday May 20        
Panel 11:30 – 12:30:
One Voice, Two Authors with Alex Latimer and Diane Awerbuck

Sunday May 21
Panel 11:30 – 12:30:
The Author as Chemist with Joanne Harris and Ekow Duker

May 18-21   
Crimefest in Bristol UK (Stanley)

Thursday, May 18
Panel 14:40 - 15:30:
What Are You Hiding? - The Dark Side Of Human Nature 

Friday, May 19
Panel 12:30 - 13:20
Panel: Power Corrupts - Who Can You Turn To?

June 13
South African launch of Dying to Live 18:00
Love Books, Melville, Johannesburg


  1. Absolutely fascinating, Michael. What else might we have shared with them, or they with us: Food not doubt. Disease? Death by famine? Was there a war? Did we bury their dead? Or they ours? The imagination reels. Please let us know as the information develops.

    I begin to think about a visit where I get to see those intriguing bones. :)

  2. Neo's skull and skeleton will be on display at The Cradle from next month. The open invitation stands!

  3. But could they cook rhubarb?

    Fascinating. As always.

    1. Probably the answer is Yes. But you'd have to supply the rhubarb and Sujata does it better anyway.

  4. Or perhaps they were being hunted by h. sapiens, and retreated into the cave to try to hide, and became trapped there...

    As AmA said, fascinating.

  5. This is fascinating. Thanks for this information, and will check in for further updates.