A Brain for Burial: Cave Discovery Rewrites Understanding of Pre-Human Species

Jun 13, 2023

How humans handle the dead has been something that has made us stand out from other species. Every culture has ways to honor those who have died. For a long time, scientists thought that these things were only done by Homo sapiens and our most recent ancestors, the Neanderthals. But now, scientists have found that these ways of dealing with death started much earlier. 

The Homo naledi lived in caves around 300,000 years ago. Like humans, they walked on two feet. They had wide shoulders and slender bodies that helped them climb. Their skulls were smaller, too. Their brains were only a third as large as modern humans. Still, Dr. Lee Berger found evidence that they handled their dead in special ways. Dr. Berger is a paleoanthropologist. This is someone who studies the evolution of humans.  

The Rising Star caves of South Africa are more than 300 feet underground. That's where Berger’s team found the buried bones of Homo naledi. They were arranged in a fetal position and covered with soil. The walls of the cave had shapes and patterns drawn on them. These bones are at least 100,000 years older than the oldest known burials by modern humans. 

Berger says that these new facts show that Homo naledi buried their dead on purpose, used signs, and did things that had special meanings. He said this likely shows that they had complicated ways of dealing with death. “That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors.”   

Photo from Instagram courtesy of @arkeofili. 

Reflect: What are some ways that humans have honored or shown respect for the dead (either in the past or now)? 

What conclusion can be drawn from the information provided in the story? (Common Core RI.5.3; RI.6.3)
a. Homo naledi had larger brains compared to modern humans.
b. Homo naledi inhabited the Rising Star caves for approximately 100,000 years.
c. Homo naledi performed complex practices related to death.
d. All of the above.
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