Scientists in South Africa have announced the discovery of the first partial Homo Naledi child’s skull in one of the world’s richest hominin fossil sites.  

The discovery at a UNESCO World Heritage site near Johannesburg, called the “Cradle of Humankind,” revealed that members of the nonhuman species performed rituals with their dead thousands of years before humans did.

Lee Berger — project leader of the Rising Star Expedition from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand — and his team searching for Homo Naledi fossils found the partial child’s skull on a remote limestone shelf in the Rising Star Cave. Consisting of 28 fragments and six teeth, the find is being called Fossil Leti — short for the Setswana word “letimela,” meaning “the lost one.”

Leti was discovered 12 meters beyond the Dinaledi chamber, where the first fossils belonging to the previously unknown Homo Naledi species were found in 2013.

Berger, a paleoanthropologist, said Leti’s solitary location was significant.

“She wasn’t dragged in there by a scavenger or carnivore,” he said. “There are no marks of that on her bones. We know she wasn’t washed in there. We can see that from the sediments. We know she didn’t crawl in there because the rest of her body, which would be much stronger than these parts, isn’t there.”

Berger surmised that one of the other Homo Naledi moved Leti to that inaccessible shelf.

Rare finds

Fossilized juvenile hominin skulls like South Africa’s world famous Taung Child and Leti are extremely rare because the remains are so fragile. Homo Naledi remains, in general, are also much more brittle than most other fossils, which have turned to stone.

Bernhard Zipfel, curator at University of the Witwatersrand of one of the largest hominid fossil collections in the world, said of the skull discovery, “It looks like bone that could have been deposited there the other day, certainly not many millions of years ago. And that is also what makes this very interesting. We’re dealing with actual bone here.”

Leti’s discovery was made in 2017 but was revealed to the public only recently. Based on her teeth, scientists determined Leti died between the ages of 4 and 6. Her remains are believed to be as old as other recovered Homo Naledi fossils, said Rising Star Expedition geologist Tebogo Makhubela, who is based at the University of Johannesburg.

“Because of the similarity of the geology — with the same sediments, the same deposition of preservation style — we believe that it is the same time period of 241,000 to 335,000 years old,” Makhubela said.

Leti will soon be included with the other Homo Naledi fragments of over 20 individuals — along with Little Foot, the most complete hominid fossil found so far — in University of the Witwatersrand’s fossil hominid vault.

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