Some 236,000 to 335,000 years ago, an archaic human species, Homo naledi, may have contemplated the afterlife after carefully burying a deceased child. An ancient being carefully placed what may have been a stone tool in the child’s hand before burial.
If loved ones placed such a tool in the child’s hand, wasn’t it intended for use beyond death? It’s an idea explored in the Netflix documentary Unknown: Cave of Bones and many other surprising revelations.
Homo naledi and the Rising Star Cave System
Homo naledi is named for the local Sesotho language word for “star,” named for the Rising Star cave system in South Africa where they were first found. The findings from this one cave upend the mainstream understanding of human evolution.
Although a large collection of skeletons were found in the cave dating back hundreds of thousands of years, it’s unknown how far into the past they existed, perhaps dating back three million years. It’s also unknown when or why the species went extinct.
What is known is that before deliberately burying their dead, the bipedal hominins made an astounding trek through the cave system. In one section, they scaled down a perilous narrow tunnel to an opening used as a tomb. It was a journey few, if any, people today could survive without ample tools and lights at their disposal.
Was Homo naledi Using Fire 300,000 Years Ago?
Somehow, these ancient beings made the trip repeatedly into a dark underground world. In the pitch black, they surely must have used fire to navigate. If not, it’s impossible to explain how they did it.
Did These Beings Contemplate Spirituality?
After somehow scaling a vertical tunnel while carrying their dead, the chasm opens up with stalactites like a cathedral, and one again wonders if they pondered something spiritual as they scratched engravings on the wall. Whatever the reason, they strongly aimed to protect their dead from any disturbance.
With brains one-third the size of modern humans (slightly larger than a chimpanzee’s brain), they performed complex burial rituals.
“These recent findings suggest intentional burials, the use of symbols, and meaning-making activities by Homo naledi. It seems an inevitable conclusion that in combination they indicate that this small-brained species of ancient human relatives was performing complex practices related to death,” said Dr. Lee Berger. “That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviors.”
Underground Astronauts Left in Wonder
Berger’s reactions to what his team of “underground astronauts” discovered give the show a human relatability. The show follows his perilous journey down into the furthest recesses of the cave system into the “Dinaledi Chamber” to see it with his own eyes.
“It was the most awful and wonderful experience in my life,” Berger said. “I almost died coming out of there, but it was obviously worth it to make some of these discoveries. But, I think an important part of that, though, is that the journey would not be nearly as difficult, I think, for Homo naledi.”
Once inside, he spotted ancient engravings on the wall and was awestruck in a moment that seemed spiritual in itself.
Reaching the burial chamber would be treacherous for anyone, but Berger believes the pre-humans had many advantages. Their thin and small but strong bodies made them excellent climbers. But the similarities are apparent when comparing the thin fingers of their hands to our own. Their feet were also human-like, and the show suggests if we were to encounter them today, they would seem alien in their appearance and movements. Yet, they would be unsettlingly human-like (see video below).
Considering it all, the list of things that make humans unique from other animals all but disappears. Findings from the Rising Star cave system could reshape our view of human origins and archaeology. But, as importantly, it challenges us to rethink our true place in the natural world, one entirely without human exceptionalism.
Official Trailer for Unknown: Cave of Bones by Netflix:
Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube/Netflix