The world now has a new kind of human to analyze: Homo naledi, discovered by scientists in South Africa. The exciting species — a new addition to our world's taxonomy — is a previously undiscovered distant human relative. Homo, as in Homo sapiens, refers to human. Naledi means star in Sesotho, a local South African language. Paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger announced Homo naledi's discovery at Maropeng Visitor Centre in Mogale, South Africa on Thursday. The announcement was made almost two years after they found 1,500 fragments belonging to at least 15 individuals in Rising Star Cave, part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Center near Krugersdorp, South Africa.
Of the six people Berger chose to accompany him on the excavation, all were young women whose slender body types and high experience levels enabled them to navigate the narrow 40-foot chute that led to the bones. Berger told National Geographic that he called the group "underground astronauts." “Looking down into it, I wasn’t sure I’d be okay,” Marina Elliott, the first scientist to descend, told National Geographic. “It was like looking into a shark’s mouth. There were fingers and tongues and teeth of rock.” According to Berger and two papers now available on the online database eLIFE, the early humans to whom the bones belonged stood at 1.5 meters (about five feet) high and had brains much smaller than ours — Berger called them "tiny." Most shockingly is how the fossils arrived in the cave in the first place: the scientists believe the skeletons were placed there deliberately, as part of a ritualistic — meaning repetitive, not religious — behavior. "This is a unique moment in history. Where that goes and studies that are undertaken beyond this, some may go beyond the realm of science, but they may actually go on to contemplate what makes us human now," Berger said during the announcement. Dr. Berger is also credited with the discovery Australopithecus sediba, another early human species. In reality, Berger's son Matthew, who was nine years old at the time, found the 2-million-year-old fossil. A video posted by National Geographic reveals the incredible story behind the September 2013 excavation. It begins with the contortionist-like descent of two professional cave explorers through 650 feet of insanely tight space, a foray that Garreth Bird, an adventure videographer who accompanied Berger's crew, later caught on camera.
"I don’t think I’ve ever shot in a more difficult environment," Bird told National Geographic. "You have to be constantly aware of your environment, because these fossils are priceless." Robert Lee Holtz, a science reporter from The Wall Street Journal, began fielding Facebook questions about Homo naledi Thursday at 1 p.m.