As It Happens

An ancient human discovery and a tight squeeze

Paleoanthropologist Marina Elliott crawls through an 18-centimetre hole in the ground and finds bones of a previously unknown species of hominin.
Left: New Hominin's hands, as assembled from 3-D scans of fossils Right: Paleoanthropologist Marina Elliott (Stefan Fichtel, Lee Berger, Peter Schmid/Wits University & John Hawks/University of Wisconsin )

The bones of 15 ancient humans, also known as hominin, have been found deep in a cave in South Africa. And the researchers behind the discovery say it may well change the way we think about our earliest ancestors.

The Rising Star Expedition's camp near Johannesburg, South Africa (John Hawks/University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Marina Elliott, a Canadian with the Rising Star Expedition, was the very first of a group of paleoanthropologists to enter the site and make the discovery. But in order to get to these bones - the small elite squad of female researchers had to crawl through a cave that at some points became very small and narrow.

Marina Elliott sits at the entrance to the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. (Robert Clark/National Geographic via AP )

Elliott tells As It Happens host Carol Off: "It was very exciting. The route to the excavation chamber is very difficult. And it sort of culminates in a narrow hallway before the chamber opens up. The narrowest pinch-point in the cave's access is 18 centimetres, and that required a fair amount of physical technique."

Speaking of the actual moment of the discovery, Elliott says that "as I squeezed through and got into the excavation chamber itself, my head-lamp just sort of shone on fossil material scattered all over the floor. That was pretty thrilling."

New bones discovered by the Rising Star Expedition in South Africa (John Hawks, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The group is calling the ancient humans Homo Naledi.

"Naledi means 'star' in one of South Africa's languages. And I think this population is certainly related to us in some way. Whether it's a direct ancestor or a distant cousin, that remains to be seen. But I think that what it really does do is reinforce the idea that the human family tree is much bushier, and more complicated, than we had previously assumed."