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Question Your World: How Much Do We Really Know About Our Past?

In 2015 we focused in on human evolution story that had the science community totally puzzled. The discovery of a new species of hominid shook up our family tree and brought up more questions about our own past. After a few more years of work and research on this topic scientists now have some updates on this ancient family member of ours. These findings are causing even more questions and getting the science community even more worked up. How much do we really know about our past? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

First of all keep in mind that new scientific discoveries happen all the time. As we learn more about our world we gain different knowledge. Sometimes this even requires rewriting the history books. From Heliocentrism to the demotion of Pluto our working knowledge of the world has been questioned and changed by the scientific process. The same notion applies to our own past as it relates to human evolution. In 2015 scientists published a bizarre finding, a new species in the hominid lineage, Homo Naledi.

Homo Naledi is a strange chapter in the story of human evolution. A survey conducted in the Rising Star cave system in southern Africa allowed us to know about a whole new never-before identified member of the human family. To find these fossil remains scientists had to traverse miles of underground cave tunnels. A chamber holding several skeletal remains was discovered and after studying them above ground they were officially designated as a different species. This particular family member is strange because it has small hands that are ideal for life in the trees, but feet similar to modern humans. Also, this creature is thought to have a brain roughly the size of an orange. That was all in 2015 and it left many questions for scientists to dig into.

Now after more time to analyze the fossils and tap into an international community of scientists, we finally have some updates to share with you! A total of 1500 skeletal artifacts have now been studied from the Rising Cave star system. Yes, the hands are small and yes, the feet are like modern humans, but the story gets even weirder.

Keep in mind that this is cave survey took modern day scientists quite a long time to find the various chambers that had fossils in there. This indicates that homo Naledi could have known to travel the maze of underground tunnels to bury their dead. This of course still needs more research considering the fact that there could have been sinkholes that made access to these locations a lot easier or perhaps it was something more like an Elephant’s Graveyard.

There was another aspect to the recently updated information that is raising some eyebrows too, the age of the fossils. We homo Sapiens, the most recent hominids to evolve, have been walking around on Earth for about 250,000 years. Lucy, the most popular Australopithecus, dates back over three million years. So, where in the vast timeline of human evolution does homo Naledi fit in?  Increasing brain size seems to be an important milestone in human evolution, but this orange sized brain’s age is very fascinating. Scientists now think that homo Naledi could have been walking around Africa as late as 236,000 years ago. This means us homo sapiens and this newly studied species would have been contemporaries.

As time moves along we’ll find more information about this species and others that once roamed the Earth. Regardless, having information like this is helping us better understand that the progress of evolution may not have been a straight linear one. We’re familiar with the monkey to human illustration, but perhaps it’s time to revisit that and make some adjustments based on these recent findings. Sure, this is a strange story, but keep in mind when studying our ancestors everything is...relative.