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Peter Schmid and William Harcourt-Smith / Wits University

Homo Naledi's Bones Were Made For Walking … and Climbing

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Peter Schmid and William Harcourt-Smith / Wits University

Its bones were made for walking—and for climbing, and possibly for tool making. That’s the latest insight to emerge from the ongoing analysis of Homo Naledi, our newest human relative, discovered in 2013 in the deep, nearly inaccessible Rising Star cave system in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind. A pair of papers recently published in Nature Communications—one on the creature’s foot, and the other on the hand—paint a more detailed picture of these small-brained creatures.  

In the foot study, a team of researchers led by William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College and a resident research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History, analyzed 107 bones from the foot of H. Naledi, including one nearly complete adult foot.

“The key finding is that this is a foot that is really, really human-like in most respects,” Harcourt-Smith told mental_floss. “However, in such a human-like foot, we did also find a couple of features that aren’t so human-like.”

He points to the creature’s slightly curved bones in its toes—a more primitive feature that may have been used to climb trees. It also seems to have had an arch that was quite low, which may have affected how it could have walked long distances on two legs, Harcourt-Smith says: “That in itself is quite interesting, because it points to how these animals were experimenting with walking upright. And, of course, bipedalism defines us as being human.”

A digital reconstruction of the H. Naledi foot. (a) Dorsal view. (b) Distal view of the cuneiforms and cuboid showing transverse arch reconstruction. (c) Medial view showing the moderate longitudinal arch. Image credit: Harcourt-Smith et al. in Nature Communications

In the hand study, a team lead by paleoanthropologist Tracy Kivell, of the University of Kent’s Skeletal Biology Research Centre, studied the near-complete hand (it’s missing one wrist bone known as a pisiform) of H. Naledi that was found with the bones still partially connected—an extraordinarily rare find. Some 150 hand bones were unearthed in the cave in all.

The 26 bones show a mix of characteristics that have never been seen before in any other hominin species, they say. The wrist bones have adaptive features that would’ve helped H. Naledi use tools (though none have been discovered) that are consistently found only in modern humans and Neanderthals. On the other hand, the finger bones are curved more than most australopiths—bipedal hominids like the 3.3-million-year-old Lucy—and very different from the straight fingers of humans and Neanderthals, which indicates the creature spent a good amount of time climbing.

The H. Naledi bones have yet to be dated, which means we don't know where they fit in among our hominid relatives. "Depending on how old (geologically) the H. naledi remains turn out to be, there will be important implications for interpreting the South African archaeological record, who made the various stone tools that have been found, and what anatomical adaptations were necessary to craft these implements," Kivell said in a statement sent to mental_floss.  

The hand of H. Naledi. (a) Palmar (left) and dorsal (right) views of the right hand bones, (b) found in situ in semi-articulation with the palm up and fingers flexed. The palmar surface of the metacarpals (Mc) and dorsal surface of the intermediate phalanges (IP) can be seen. Image credit: Kivell et al. in Nature Communications

When you put together the mostly modern foot and the modern-primitive hand with other features of the H. naledi body—especially the shoulder suited for climbing and a tiny skull that is decidedly un-human like in size—you get a picture of a creature that is utterly unlike anything else in the fossil record, Harcourt-Smith says. H. Naledi’s unique suite of characteristics “really speak to a unique experiment with being upright, with some part of the time spent being in the trees and some of the time walking around on the ground,” he says.

They’re not yet sure how the creature would have walked. “We haven’t come up with a really good model how it moved yet,” Harcourt-Smith says. “It’s a real conundrum. But I can tell you this: It would’ve spending most of its time walking upright. Its heel would’ve struck the ground the way ours does, and when it was walking it would’ve [looked] distinct from us—but not that much so.”

He continues, “What’s really interesting is that we always used to think with the genus Homo that one of the hallmarks of it was being a full upright, sort of obligate, 100 percent biped. But we now have a creature that we’ve assigned to Homo based on its feet and skull, and yet it’s not really walking upright 100 percent of the time. It raises as many questions as it answers about bipeds.”

Figuring out how H. naledi moved is one of the next big areas of inquiry for the foot researchers. “We really want to reconstruct the gait of this creature,” Harcourt-Smith says. “That means working with all of the teams and coming up with a really robust biomechanical evaluation of the whole. It’ll be a few years worth of work.”

They're also going to investigate the internal architecture, he says. “We’re going to be looking at the molecular structure, and that requires very high-resolution CT scanning.”

As for the hand, Kivell too will be peering inside. “We have done microCT scans of the hand bones and will next analyze the internal bony structure—trabecular and cortical bone—which can tell us more information about function and how the H. naledi hand was used,” she told mental_floss in an email.     

While the science continues, the scientists themselves seem to still be riding the high of the discovery of this unprecedentedly large assemblage of unique bones, and excited by what they can teach us about our evolutionary past.

“When I got down there, it was fossil heaven,” Harcourt-Smith says. “There were so many different things. You never get these sort of opportunities with this amount of stuff found so quickly, and it really was an extraordinary privilege to work on. It’s not normal to get this sort of treasure trove of material in one go. It’s new territory in some ways.”

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Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Unearth the Victims of a Mysterious Massacre 400 Years Ago on an Australian Island
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Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The cargo ship Batavia set out from the Netherlands in October 1628, bound for the Dutch colony at present-day Jakarta, Indonesia, with more than 300 crew and passengers. For some still-unknown reason, the ship veered off course to the south and smashed into a coral atoll about 50 miles west of the Australian coast.

What happened over the next few months—culminating in a mysterious and brutal massacre that left at least 125 people dead—is Australia's oldest cold case.

In a story that aired on 60 Minutes Australia, correspondent Liam Bartlett traveled to this "island of horror" where a team of Australian and Dutch scientists is uncovering the nearly 400-year-old skeletons, well preserved in the sand of what is now Beacon Island. They hope to discover what led to the sudden mass slaughter of adults and children.

"We're dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events," Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and the leader of the research team, tells Bartlett. "There's nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history."

A screenshot of the Beacon Island dig site from 60 Minutes Australia
A scene from the 60 Minutes Australia report
Kat Long

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, was on its maiden voyage. The commander, Francisco Pelsaert, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested each other. Jacobsz conspired with Pelsaert's deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to take control of the ship and its load of silver and valuable paintings. But before the mutiny could unfold, the ship crashed into the reef in the early morning of June 4, 1629.

About 100 people died in the wreck, while almost 200 made it to a cluster of islands in the Abrolhos chain—treeless, desert-like stretches of sand without water or food. Pelsaert and Jacobsz sailed for help, hoping to reach their original destination nearly 2000 miles away by boat.

The events of the next three months continue to puzzle and horrify modern researchers. Initially, Jeronimus Cornelisz organized food rations and shelter for the survivors on Beacon Island as a way to cement his leadership. But then, he hoarded the weapons and boats for his own use. He ordered his followers to execute the strong, able-bodied men who could pose a threat to his control over the group. Most of the women and children who would be a drain on supplies were also killed, though some women were kept alive as sexual slaves, Bartlett reports.

"Totally Lord of the Flies," Paterson says.

The Batavia massacre
An image from Pelsaert's journal of the voyage
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cornelisz marooned several men on a nearby island to get them out of the way as the killing rampage continued. But those men, led by a sailor named Wiebbe Hayes, managed to find water and food, and made a primitive protective fort of stone slabs—which still exists as the first European-made structure on Australian soil. In early August, two months after the wreck, Cornelisz and his men attempted to storm Hayes' stronghold and eliminate his band of survivors.

At the last moment, a rescue ship helmed by Pelsaert and Jacobsz appeared on the horizon. Both Hayes and Cornelisz sent out boats to intercept the ship, hoping to establish their version of events as fact and save themselves from punishment. Fortunately, Hayes's men reached the ship first.

Only 80 to 90 survivors out of the Batavia's 300-plus passengers eventually arrived in present-day Jakarta. Cornelisz, who never showed a hint of remorse or offered an explanation for his brutality, was hanged along with his co-conspirators. The bones of his victims, preserved in the island's alkali coral sand for almost four centuries, are now revealing clues to the historical mystery. 

"Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims," Paterson tells Bartlett. "But the archaeology allows us to get their story told." 

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Traces of What Could Be the Oldest Wine in the World
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iStock

Humankind has enjoyed wine for a long time—since the early Neolithic period, at least, judging from ancient residue on prehistoric pottery shards excavated from two sites in Georgia, in the South Caucasus. The fragments potentially date back to 6000 BCE, pushing back the earliest evidence of winemaking by about 600 to 1000 years, as The New York Times reports.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings pinpoint Georgia as one of the very first—if not the first—nations to have mastered winemaking. Before, Iran held the honor, although China can still lay claim to the world's oldest fermented beverage (a cocktail-like concoction of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit, and wild grapes that was enjoyed as early as 7000 BCE).

Leading the PNAS study was Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He and his team excavated the remains of two Neolithic villages, located around 30 miles south of Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. There, they found shards of clay jars—the likely remnants of large, rotund vats, which once could have accommodated as many as 400 bottles worth of today's wine.

Remains of ancient Georgian pottery vessels that may have once contained wine, photographed by Mindia Jalabadze.
(A) Representative early Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora (B) Jar base (C) Jar base (D) Jar base, interior
Mindia Jalabadze, courtesy of the National Museum of Georgia

These shards were collected for chemical analysis. Eight of them ended up containing tartaric, malic, succinic, and citric acids, all of which had leached into the clay long ago. The combination of these four acids is believed to be present only in grape wine. Researchers also noted traces of ancient grape pollen, starch from grape wine, and signs of prehistoric fruit flies.

Of course, there is the off chance that the jars might have been used to just make grape juice, but their decorations indicate that they weren't made to hold ordinary drinks, researchers argue.

Archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age shows that Georgians have always held wine in great importance. But some experts thought this love of vino dated back even further—and now they believe they have pretty convincing proof.

[h/t The New York Times]

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