Commemorating the dead 330,000 years ago

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A photographic scale next to a cross-hatched engraving in the Rising Star cave system CREDIT: Mathabela Tsikoane/Guzelian

Archaeologists excavating in South Africa have found evidence of funeral inscriptions dating from 330,000 years ago, the earliest ever discovered. The inscriptions were found on the wall of a cave in the Rising Star cave system, located about 30 miles from Johannesburg. Nearby inside the cave was a group of fossilised remains which belong to an extinct group of small-brain hominids called Homo naledi, who lived between 241,000 and 335,000 years ago

The graves are up to 200,000 years earlier than the first burials performed by modern humans. The inscriptions consist of geometric markings of lines, squares, crosses and triangles carved into the walls, close to where the bones had been interred.

Homo naledi stood 1.5 metres tall and weighed about 40 kilos. The hips were similar to those of our earliest ancestor, the hominid Lucy, but they had human-like legs and feet. Their long arms, curved fingers and shoulders were well designed for climbing. Their skulls were a similar shape to those of early humans but their brains were tiny, similar to that of a chimpanzee.

Roughly horizontal, wavy lines crossed by engravings CREDIT: Berger et al

The fossils were found inside the cave entrance and experts initially thought they had simply been dragged there. But later digs showed that the individuals, ranging from infants to the elderly, had been carefully deposited over a long period of time. It also appears that the remains had been intentionally covered up with sediment.  Experts are confident that the intricate cave wall carvings close to the remains were made by Homo naledi. Research shows the walls were smoothed down before the markings were made and perhaps polished afterwards

Until now, it was believed that only later, large-brained modern humans and Neanderthals had the emotional intelligence to commemorate death and create memorials to their loved ones.

Professor Penny Spikins, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, said: “The evidence of significant effort being made to care and attend to the dead … suggests that emotions developed ahead of intellect in our evolutionary history. Homo naledi developed social and emotional parts of their brains hundreds of thousands of years before homo sapiens.”

The research was published in the journal elife and reported by Sarah Knapton, Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Alun Harvey

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