Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Struik Travel & Heritage

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

How Old is Homo Naledi? Young Scientist Tebogo Makhubela is the Man Who Will Tell the World

Field Guide to the Cradle of Human KindRedi Tlhabi recently spoke to Tebogo Makhubela, the scientist who will hopefully eventually tell the world how old Homo naledi really is.

The Soweto-born scientist is currently working on his PhD in geochronology and landscape evolution at the University of Johannesburg. Makhubela explains that geochronology is the science of determining the ages of rocks, minerals and fossils.

Makhubela, who became a member of Professor Lee Berger’s Rising Star team in 2014 when he was still doing his Master’s degree, says his interest in paleontology and geology was sparked in 2008 when Berger discovered Australopithecus sediba at the Malapa Caves.

So, how will he date these bones?

Makhubela explains that the process starts with looking at the material that is attached to the bones. Second, you look at the soil and rocks covering the fossils which can be dated using different techniques. “We are not dating the age of the fossils themselves but other events which took place in the area,” he explains.

Listen to the podcast for this fascinating conversation:


Earlier this year, Business Day conducted an in-depth interview with Berger on his life-long dedication to palaeontology, the incredible current period of exploration and the exhilarating feeling when his phone rings and the voice on the other side says, “we’ve found something”. He also speaks about the criticism that’s accompanied finding Homo naledi.

Read the article:

THE lens of the world’s palaeontological community is focused on the finds coming out of this corner of SA. Wits, the government and the tourism industry couldn’t be happier. Berger’s luck is now as fabled as Louis Leakey’s. But will his peers draw the line at tourism?

It seems Berger splits the world of palaeontology. Some find his methods, his media savvy and big claims sacrilegious. Others are swept along on the tide of his enthusiasm, buoyed by discoveries, passion and the generous sharing of his grant funding.

“‘Leakey’s luck’ is an insult,” Berger says.

“It denies the decades of hard graft that came before. Who doesn’t want to be lucky? We say, ‘gosh, I’m lucky’ all the time. As long as the people who are making the discoveries are swashbuckling adventurers, they don’t threaten the scientific establishment.”

It is the heartstopping moment, the lightning strikes, that get him out of bed in the morning.

In October this year, Berger took to Facebook to set the record straight on a number of statements in the media and on social media about the conditions around finding Homo naledi. Berger weighs in on issues such as not putting preservatives on the bones during the process of excavation and the accusation that the six excavators were chosen because they are women.

Read the post on Berger’s Facebook page:

Finally, the idea that the six primary excavators, who just happen to be women, were chosen for their sex as some sort of publicity stunt is insulting. It’s insulting to our large team of scientists, it’s insulting to these extraordinary scientists who literally risked their lives daily to recover these fossils, and it’s insulting to female scientists in general. I led the selection panel its true. There were approximately 60 qualified applicants that responded to the Ad I and others circulated on various social media platforms. A significant majority of these applicants were women and that may reflect nothing more than the changing demographics of who is choosing to do a degree in this field, I don’t know – they are who applied. We shortlisted that group to about ten candidates who we felt were the best qualified based on their skills and their skills alone, as long as they met the physical requirements the dangerous task demanded. We quite literally ranked them in order. It is a little known fact that from the shortlist, the first selection of six excavators included a male, but he, it turned out, did not actually meet the physical requirements to get into the chamber and so by that one chance the six scientists we chose were all women and all the best qualified to do the job meeting all the requirements we set out at the time. I hope that clears that issue up once and for all.

What does Homo naledi look like? Thomas Hartleb writes for News24 that Homo naledi is a mixture of ape and human and, according to Berger, “practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage”.

For a detailed description of Homo naledi’s physical attributes, read two journal articles on Nature Communications entitled: “The hand of Homo naledi” and “The foot of Homo naledi”.

Read the article:

Homo naledi’s hands and feet had features of both apes and modern humans, according to new research.

Its wrist, thumb, and palm were similar to Neanderthals and modern humans.

The fingers however were “long and remarkably curved” like those of existing apes, according to a paper titled The hand of Homo naledi, published in the journal Nature Communications on Monday.

Towards the end of September, Berger gave his first public lecture since the discovery of Homo naledi at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas in the United States.

Read the report on the lecture, written by Anna Kuchment, for The Dallas Morning News:

However old the fossils prove to be, the discovery will upend our understanding of how humans evolved, Berger said.

“When we look into this face, we’re seeing something truly startling and new that tells us we should be extremely cautious about proclaiming every fossil fragment we find the newest and best ancestor,” he said. “Homo naledi tells us there is more to be found.”

Traditionally, evolution has been seen as a linear progression from chimpish animals that walked upright, to animals with larger brains, to modern humans. But Berger thinks human history is messier.

“Homo naledi questions the uniqueness of our humanity,” he said.

Visitors of the Natural History Museum in London can also experience the wonders of Homo naledi. Three-dimensional prints of the fossils were unveiled in September and put on display in the Human Evolution gallery:

Casts of H. naledi skull, hand and jawbone fossils will be unveiled to the public at the Natural History Museum’s Science Uncovered night on Friday 25 September 2015, and will then go on display in our new Human Evolution gallery, opening later this year.

Adding to the mystery
One reason scientists are excited about H. naledi is that the fossils were found 80 metres deep within the cave system – an area that would have been in constant darkness.

Prof Stringer, who has written a comment piece in eLife accompanying the research, says ‘the deep cave location suggests that the bones may have been deposited there by other humans’.

Related links:


Book details

Image courtesy of the Sunday Times


Please register or log in to comment