South African paleontologists say so. It would be the oldest known burial in the world. But they are the remains of a distant relative of humans, with a small brain. Until now it was thought to be incapable of complex behavior. This challenges the current understanding of human evolution. It is a burial that predates humans.
They are led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger. They found several specimens of Homo naledi (a tree-climbing hominid from the Stone Age). They are buried about 30 meters underground in a cave system within the Cradle of Humankind. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site near Johannesburg, South Africa.
“It pre-dates the evidence of burials from Homo sapiens. At least 100,000 years,” the scientists write in a series of papers. The burials of Homo sapiens were about 100,000 years old. The findings of Lee Berger and his fellow researchers date back to at least 200,000 BC.
The Homo naledi was a primitive species at the crossroads between apes and modern humans. It had a brain the size of an orange and a half and was 1.5 meters tall. Also, curved fingers, dexterous hands for handling tools and feet adapted for walking.
These pits contain at least five individuals. The holes indicate that they were deliberately dug. They were then backfilled to cover the bodies, the researchers noted. This would not be the only indication that the Homo naledi was capable of complex emotional and cognitive behaviors. There were engravings forming geometrical figures, including a “figure of a hashtag“. They are on the apparently purposely smoothed surfaces of a nearby cave pillar.
“That would mean not only that humans are not unique in developing symbolic practices. They may not even have invented such behaviors.” The findings “alter our understanding of human evolution,” the researchers wrote.
A burial that predates humans brings new questions. “Not just burials and meaning-making. Even art might have a much more complicated and dynamic non-human history than we thought.” Agustin Fuentes, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and co-author of the studies, stated.