National Geographic team with Agustín Fuentes makes news with potentially game-changing find

June 15, 2023

A team of researchers including Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes has found, deep in a cave system in South Africa, that an extinct, small-brained species of ancient human relatives buried their dead and used symbols, a discovery that could alter our understanding of human evolution.

Led by paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in Residence Lee Berger, the group discovered the bodies of several Homo naledi adults and children in the Rising Star cave system near Johannesburg. The contexts in which the bodies were found led the researchers to interpret that they were intentionally buried. The naledi interments predate the earliest known burial of modern humans (Homo sapiens) by at least 100,000 years.

Further, the team found lines and shapes engraved on cave walls, including cross-hatchings and other geometric shapes that appear to have been etched with repeated scrapes with a pointed or sharp tool. The symbols are similar to those made by larger-brained Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens and were considered a major cognitive development in human evolution.

The National Geographic Society, which funded the research, released the findings June 5. Scientific papers on the work will be published in the Journal eLife and are available in preprint through BioRxiv.