By Colin Barras. In , Lee Berger at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and his colleagues made an extraordinary discovery — deep inside a South African cave system they found thousands of bones belonging to a brand new species of early human — and now we finally may know when this species lived and how it fits into our evolutionary tree. By it was becoming clear that the new species, which was named Homo naledi , was unlike anything researchers had discovered before. Although parts of its skeleton looked identical to our modern human anatomy, it had some features that were strikingly primitive — including a skull that was only slightly larger than that of a chimpanzee. But Berger and his colleagues had trouble establishing how old the H.
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The search for fossils begins with geological surveys. Some areas are more likely to yield fossils than others, and researchers normally concentrate their efforts on regions that have good, fossil-bearing rock such as the dolomitic limestone of the Cradle of Humankind and the ancient lake beds of East Africa. But a good measure of luck is also needed sometimes, as was the case in many of the Cradle of Humankind sites, which were first explored by miners. Hundreds of palaeontological sites in South Africa have been exposed by miners.
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But then there was the head. Four partial skulls had been found—two were likely male, two female. In their general morphology they clearly looked advanced enough to be called Homo. But the braincases were tiny—a mere cubic centimeters for the males and for the females, far less than H.
As a species, we humans have always been fascinated in where we came from. That misconception began to shift slowly from , when the modern discipline of palaeoanthropology — the study of our origins — was born in South Africa. In the years that followed palaeontologist Robert Broom found more fossils of adult individuals from Sterkfontein and other caves in the area we now know as the Cradle of Humankind , just outside Johannesburg. But there are other types of rocks in the caves.