A small relative to our species (Homo sapiens) has been discovered in a cave in the Philippines, USA Today reports. Newly excavated bones and teeth provide evidence of a previously unknown humanoid species. The discovery changes our knowledge of evolution and early ancestry for the second time in a decade.
According to USA Today, the remains suggest that the small species may have only stood about three feet tall. This distant cousin to humankind could offer a new stepping stone in the theory of evolution. The findings are similar to the 2008 discovery of Homo naledi—another new human ancestor—which took place in South Africa. In 2015, Homo naledi was announced as a new species after the bones were described by a 47-member international team of authors as a new Homo species.
Winning the Paleoanthropological Lottery
Homo naledi, like the discovery in the Philippines, seemed to come out of nowhere. In 2008, South African-based paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger was walking out in the field in South Africa with his protegé, his dog, and his then-9-year-old son Matt. Berger, who also serves as Research Professor of Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, said that his son asked if he could go “find some fossils,” which Berger encouraged. Mere moments later, Matt called back to Berger that he’d already discovered one. “Five meters away [from him], I knew his—and my—life was going to change forever, because sticking out of that rock I saw a hominid clavicle,” Professor Berger said. “I turned the rock over and there, sticking out of the back of it, was a jaw and a tooth, and that would lead to an extraordinary time.”
Matthew had found a skeleton, which Professor Berger cites as one of the rarest things that can be found—and then they found four more. That site became one of the richest sites of hominid discovery in the entire continent of Africa, boasting pristine skeletons. “This was the paleoanthropological equivalent of winning the lottery,” Professor Berger said. They excavated the site and reaped the benefits of the findings for five years, until Professor Berger, on a hunch, went back to South Africa.
The Rising Star Expedition
In 2013, one of Professor Berger’s former students approached him to further explore the area surrounding the initial discovery. They formed a small team and went back to the same area where they’d made their first discovery in 2008. Two men journeyed down a narrow hole 60 feet below the surface and found another set of hominid remains. This time, however, Professor Berger had found something even more special. “I knew immediately that that was a fossil hominid and it was not a human,” Berger said. “I could tell by the proportions of the teeth; I could tell by its size.”
To obtain photographic proof, Professor Berger sent his son into the narrow cave, which included slipping through a crack less than eight inches high. Even more extraordinary than the route, Professor Berger said, was that the remains were just lying in the dirt rather than being encased in rock like his former find. He founded a 60-person excavation team and conducted his exploration live underground, broadcasting the groundbreaking but dangerous Rising Star Expedition to the world. The journey from the surface to the remains was 45 minutes each way, with excavators often being out of touch with the base. “They would vanish from our communications as they went down this slot,” Professor Berger said. In addition, “they could wear no safety gear because it’s so tight.”
The Rising Star Expedition repeated and surpassed his good fortune from 2008. Not only did his team find multiple hominid skeletons, but this time they discovered an entirely new species: Homo naledi.
As technology provides for advances in archaeological and anthropological research, the recent findings in the Philippines will likely be one of the last archaeological digs to discover something so significant. However, as the digs and Professor Berger’s excavations have shown, the Earth still holds some surprises underground.
Professor Lee Berger contributed to this article. Professor Berger is an award-winning researcher, author, speaker, and paleoanthropologist. He is the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s first Prize for Research and Exploration.