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10 Must-know Rising Star Cave System Facts

10 Must-know Rising Star Cave System Facts

To celebrate the latest discoveries made at the Cradle of Humankind, we thought we’d take a look at some interesting facts surrounding Homo naledi and the Rising Star Cave System.

1. The word “Lesedi” means “light” in the Setswana language, which is one of the languages commonly spoken in this part of South Africa. The word “naledi” means “star” in the Sesotho language, and the word “Dinaledi” means “stars”.

2. The Lesedi Chamber is approximately 30 meters underground. To enter the chamber, the team uses a path that goes more than 80 meters from the surface, twisting and turning through the cave, with one tight squeeze that only small team members can fit through, and some dangerous drops. This chamber is not as difficult to enter as the Dinaledi Chamber, which can be entered only through the 18-cm (7 ½ inch)-wide entry chute, which is a vertical 12 meter (40-foot) climb. But the fossil remains in the Lesedi Chamber are in a small, cramped side tunnel that can only accommodate a single excavator at a time. It is a very challenging situation for the team to work in.


Standing left to right: 2017 Explorers, Mathabela Tsikoane, Maropeng Ramalepa, Dirk van Rooyen, Steven Tucker(seated), and Rick Hunter(seated) inside the Rising Star cave system. Photo: Wits University/Marina Elliott

3. The team has recovered 131 fossil hominin specimens from the Lesedi Chamber. By itself, this is one of the most productive hominin sites in Africa.

4. The majority of the remains recovered so far look like parts of the skeleton of a single adult male individual, designated LES1. It is traditional in the study of human evolution to name skeletons when we can recognise individuals, and the name “Neo” means “gift” in the Sesotho language, one of the languages commonly spoken in this part of South Africa today. The name resembles a character from the film, The Matrix, however, this resemblance is coincidental.

“Neo” skull of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber. Photo credit: Wits University/ John Hawks

5. The bones and teeth of Neo all indicate that he had completed development, and the teeth exhibit considerable wear, showing he was a relatively old individual. Neo’s skull is a bit larger than any of the skulls found in the Dinaledi Chamber, and has prominent attachments for the muscles of the jaw and neck, which tends to be true of males within human and other primate species.

6. The team does not have any information yet from the geology of the Lesedi Chamber that says directly how old those fossils are, but the Lesedi fossils are very similar to the Dinaledi fossils of Homo naledi, just as similar as human skeletons from a single population. This suggests that both chambers contain individuals that may have lived at roughly the same time. The team is working now to discover the age of the Lesedi hominin fossils to test this hypothesis.

7. The fossils of H. naledi in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers almost certainly were not the last H. naledi to have lived. The evidence cannot say how long H. naledi may have survived, and the team does not rule out the hypothesis that H. naledi was present much later than 236,000 years ago.

8. During the past million years or more, the region south of the tropical rain forests of Africa has been home to vast and contiguous areas of grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands, where hominins may have lived. Like many other animal species that live in such habitats, modern humans have their highest diversity in subequatorial Africa. The discovery of Homo naledi suggests that the hominin diversity in this region was even higher in the past.

”Lucy” and ”Neo”. Left: ”Lucy” skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, 3.2 million years old. Right: ”Neo” skeleton of Homo naledi, 250,000 years old. Photo credit: Wits University/ John Hawks

9. After intensive exploration and investigation, the team has found no evidence to exclude the hypothesis that H. naledi deliberately deposited bodies in the Dinaledi Chamber. The Lesedi Chamber discovery adds yet another instance, similar and form and content to the Dinaledi Chamber. This appears to present further evidence that H. naledi was using the Rising Star cave system for a repeated behavior.

10. It is a reasonable hypothesis that H. naledi must have controlled fire in order to repeatedly use areas deep within the Rising Star cave system. However, the team has not yet confirmed any physical or chemical evidence of ancient fires in either the Dinaledi or Lesedi Chambers. Controlled use of fire is known from other sites in South Africa in excess of 1 million years ago, including Swartkrans which is just 800 meters from the entrance of the Rising Star cave system.

Homo naledi was very different from archaic humans that lived around the same time. Left: Kabwe skull from Zambia, an archaic human. Right: ”Neo” skull of Homo naledi. Photo credit: Wits University/ John Hawks

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