Crowdsourcing digs up an early human species

Ewen Callaway in Nature:

Homo%20naledi_900px“Dear colleagues — I need the help of the whole community,” palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger posted on social media on 6 October 2013. Berger, based at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, had just learned of a small underground chamber loaded with early human fossils. He was looking for experienced excavators to collect the delicate remains before they deteriorated further. “The catch is this,” Berger went on. “The person must be skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience.” Less than two years after he posted this missive, Berger and his team have pieced together more than 1,500 ancient human bones and teeth from the Rising Star cave system — the biggest cache of such material ever found in Africa. The remains belong to at least 15 individuals of a previously undescribed species that the team has dubbed Homo naledi, and they may mark the oldest known deliberate burial in human history, Berger and his colleagues report in eLife1, 2. For Berger, the research marks a milestone in a campaign to transform palaeoanthropology into an open and inclusive field, in which rare fossils are rapidly shared with the scientific world instead of being squirrelled away as an elite few scrutinize them for years.

…The team intends to publish at least a dozen papers from the workshop in coming months; the two published today are the first. They describe the site and the anatomy of Homo naledi, whose skull encased a small, fist-sized brain much like those of other early members of the genus Homo and of the more ancient australopiths. In other ways, its body is more like those of modern humans, with the lower limbs and feet of a biped and hands that could have gripped tools with precision. The researchers estimate that H. naledi would have stood just under 1.5 metres tall and weighed between 40 and 55 kilograms.

More here.