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Oldest known burial site on planet Earth wasn't actually created by our species

Oldest known burial site on planet Earth wasn't actually created by our species

The site predates the oldest known human burial by 100,000 years

The oldest burial sight on the planet has been discovered - and it wasn't created by humans.

Questions around the evolution of mankind and where we all come from are enduring fascinations across the world, with many of us often wondering what life was like for our distant ancestors.

The origins of modern humans have so far been traced back to the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just outside of Johannesburg.

This site holds burial grounds for some of modern humans oldest ancestors - however, a new discovery could change everything that we know about about human evolution.

The Rising Star caves system in The Cradle of Human Kind. (LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images)
The Rising Star caves system in The Cradle of Human Kind. (LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images)

Nestled deep in a series of caves about 30 meters (100 feet) underground called the Rising Star system were a string of burial sites belonging to a long extinct species called the Homo Naledi.

The burial sites are around 200,000 years old, predating ancient human sites by around 100,000 years.

Homo Naledi are estimated to have been about 143.6 cm (4 ft 9 in) tall, had 'tool wielding' hands and walked upright.

Their brains were also significantly smaller than the modern human brain, as they were thought to be about the same size as an orange.

The research was led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, who referred to the discovery as 'the most ancient interments yet recorded in the hominin record'.

A Homo Naledi skull. (LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images)
A Homo Naledi skull. (LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images)

Following the discovery, Berger has since gone on to suggest the burial site could upend everything we currently know about human evolution.

The remains were discovered in holes which appeared to have been deliberately dug and filled in at the time of burial and there were also geometrical carvings on the wall, suggesting the Naledi possessed the ability to create complex burial sites.

"These discoveries show that mortuary practices were not limited to H. sapiens or other hominins with large brain sizes," researchers argued, adding that this proved they were capable of complex behaviour.

According to Berger, this means that humans are not 'unique' in their behaviours, telling AFP: "[This discovery] would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviours."

Lee Berger in the Rising Star cave system. (LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images)
Lee Berger in the Rising Star cave system. (LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images)

However, not everyone is convinced by Berger's research.

A study later conducted in November 2023 argued there was 'no scientific evidence' proving the Homo Naledi deliberately buried their dead and called for further research into Berger's claims.

"We really need substantial additional documentation and scientific analyses before we can rule out that natural agents and post-depositional processes were responsible for the accumulation of bodies/body parts and to prove the intentional excavation and filling of pits by Homo Naledi," María Martinón-Torres said in the critique, which was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Featured Image Credit: LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images

Topics: Science