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Homo naledi: A new branch on the human family tree

Long ago, we coexisted on earth with other human species. Now there's one more.

Homo naledi may have overlapped with our species, but resembles our relatives from millions of years earlier.

John Gurche

Homo naledi may have overlapped with our species, but resembles our relatives from millions of years earlier.

The “March of Progress” image, where the knuckle-dragging ape transitions to upright modern man, doesn’t tell the whole story. For much of our species’ history, Homo sapiens co-existed with other close relatives in the genus Homo. Like us, they were tool-makers, fire-controllers, maybe even storytellers. But they weren’t us, exactly. And now our family tree has a new branch. 

A stylized version of the classic

M. garde/wikimedia commons

A stylized version of the classic "March of Progress" image from Life magazine.

The new kid: Homo naledi

In 2013, a huge cave of fossils belonging to a previously unknown, extinct human relative was found in South Africa. The species was named Homo naledi. A chemical analysis published this week in the journal eLife found the bones are between 236,000 and 335,000 years old. This poses a big puzzle: Naledi shares some features with modern humans, like delicate wrists and nimble hands suited for making tools. But its brain is half the size of ours and much of its anatomy resembles human ancestors from two million years ago. No one is sure yet if naledi is a primitive human relative that survived an unusually long time, a hybrid of some kind, or something else entirely. But the paper’s authors write that the species “possibly lived at the same time, and in the same place, as modern humans.” Here are some other relatives we walked the earth with, once upon an (approximate) time.

Andres Plana/Metro

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