World's oldest known burial site was not created by humans
Paleontologists have made a startling discovery in South Africa which suggests that it was not humans who created the world's oldest known burial site.
The researchers have found remains of small-brained distant relatives of humans in the burial site, which has hinted at them being the creators. These mammals were known to be incapable of complex behaviour.
The researchers, headed by renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, in June announced that several specimens of Homo naledi have been discovered by them. These remains of Stone Age hominids, who were good at tree-climbing, were found buried around 30 meters (100 feet) underground in a cave system inside the Cradle of Humankind, which is a designated UNESCO world heritage site close to Johannesburg.
"These are the most ancient interments yet recorded in the hominin record, earlier than evidence of Homo sapiens interments by at least 100,000 years," said the scientists, in the numerous preprint papers which were published in eLife.
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The discoveries have challenged the current theories associated with human evolution which normally stated that bigger brains' development helped in performing complex, "meaning-making" tasks like burying the dead.
The oldest burials earlier found by archaeologists in the Middle East and Africa had the remains of Homo sapiens, which were estimated to be around 100,000 years old.
Those remains discovered in South Africa by Berger date back to at least 200,000 BC. The remains critically also belong to Homo naledi, which was a primitive species and had brains which were as big as oranges.
Speaking about the latest discovery in the paper, the researchers said, "These discoveries show that mortuary practices were not limited to H. sapiens or other hominins with large brain sizes.”
They added that the burial site is not the only sign which proves that Homo naledi was capable of complex cognitive and emotional behaviour.
The engravings which formed geometrical shapes, including a "rough hashtag figure", were also discovered on the surfaces of a cave pillar nearby which appeared purposely smoothed.
"That would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but may not have even invented such behaviours," Berger said, in an interview with AFP.
In 2015, Berger had faced opposition after his discoveries claimed that Homo naledi was capable of doing more than the size of its head.
"That was too much for scientists to take at that time. We think it's all tied up with this big brain. We're about to tell the world that's not true,” he added.