Nikita Richardson
September 10, 2015 12:50 pm

It took a very, very long time for we human beings to become the upright-walking, opposable thumb-having, giant-brained creatures that we are today. In fact, it took us about 7.5 million years and dozens of evolutionary “drafts” to become Homo sapiens sapiens.

And now it looks like we have a new “sketch” to add to the chain, according to archaeologists and anthropologists working in South Africa. This week, in a study published in the journal, eLife, scientists working with National Geographic announced that they’ve discovered the remains of Homo naledi, a possible predecessor of the human species found in caves just outside Johannesburg. What’s more, it seems like members of the H. naledi species may have buried their dead, a cultural phenomenon solely attributed to modern humans until now.

“There are over 1,500 hominin fossils and not a single other fossil from a large African mammal. That was the first indication that this locality was unusual and the absence of other fossils is an important piece of evidence that this accumulation of bodies was deliberate,” co-author and associate professor of anthropology Jeremy DeSilva, told The Huffington Post. “It was stunning, and an absolute thrill, to work with such a large collection of hominin fossils.”

In all, scientists discovered the remains of 15 men, women, and children in the Rising Star caves, including enough bones to create a composite skeleton. After nearly two years of extensive analysis, researchers have concluded that the feet of H. naledi were almost indistinguishable from those of modern humans while their hands featured curved fingers perfect for climbing and their skulls appeared to be significantly smaller than our own. Additionally, H. naledi were smaller than your average human, weighing roughly 100 pounds and standing five feet tall.

While some anthropologists are appropriately reluctant to declare the existence of a new human-like species (after all, that’s the scientific process), this is still a significant discovery and if true, a major step forward in our understanding of human evolution.

Check out a short video about the discovery below and tune into PBS on Wednesday, September 16 at 9 p.m. EST to watch a National Geographic/NOVA special about the discovery.

(Image via YouTube/National Geographic)

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